Henry V

views updated Jun 08 2018

Henry V



As a tribute to the king who won back the throne of France for England, William Shakespeare's Henry V may be narrow in scope, but it is great in majesty. This epic play was probably written sometime between March and early September in 1599. However, there is no record of a performance of Henry V before January 7, 1605, when it was presented at court by the King's Majesty's Players.

The play is often referred to as a vehicle for inspiring patriotism, which well might have been the case in Shakespeare's time. Even in 1944, during the Second World War, the British actor Laurence Olivier directed a fresh version of Henry V, adapting the play to film to encourage British troops. In the drama, audiences watch the fictionalized character of King Henry V lead his troops across the English Channel to face a French army that is better equipped and at least five times larger in number. The battle at Agincourt is the central action of the play, and the results are astonishing.

Most modern critics maintain that there is strong evidence that Shakespeare consulted both Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scot-lande, and Irelande (1577; 1587) and Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York (2d ed., 1548) as sources for Henry V. Commentators note that such passages as Canterbury's speech explaining Salic law in act 1, scene 2 is a paraphrase in verse of Holinshed's narrative of this episode, with only slight variations from the original. On the other hand, Shakespeare makes no reference to many events that appear in Holinshed's and Hall's accounts of the reign of Henry V. In addition, the dramatist implies only a short passage of time between the battle at Agincourt and the achievement of a treaty with France, when in fact the two were separated by a period of nearly four years. A lost and anonymous play from the 1580s, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, survives only in a corrupt edition of 1598, so that it has proved difficult to determine the degree of Shakespeare's familiarity with this work. However, several critics have noticed parallels between Shakespeare's Henry V and The Famous Victories, including similarities in structure, the prominence in each of the Dauphin's gift of tennis balls to Henry, and the inclusion in both works of a wooing scene between Henry and Katherine.

Henry V has been praised by many scholars as an energetic portrayal of one of England's most popular national heroes. While the central issue for critics has been the character of the king and whether he represents Shakespeare's ideal ruler, modern commentary has increasingly explored both Henry's positive and negative attributes. Although the personality of the king has attracted a significant amount of discussion, commentators have also shown renewed interest in Shakespeare's attitude toward patriotism and war, his use of language and imagery, the absence of Falstaff, a lovable rascal who played an important part in Shakespeare's Henry IV, and the play's epic elements, particularly Shakespeare's use of the Chorus.


Act 1, Prologue

Shakespeare opens his play Henry V with a Chorus (in most productions a single person), who announces that this grand play, with its wars and open fields, powerful characters and armies of men, is unfortunately confined to a small wooden stage. In order to capture the magnitude of the actions and circumstances surrounding the great figure of Henry V, the Chorus asks that the audience generously use its imagination to fill in the missing elements.

Act 1, Scene 1

The first scene opens in England, in the king's court. The first characters to appear are the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, announcing, through their dialogue, that King Henry is planning on passing a bill that will take much of the church's wealth away. The king wants to use the excess money that the church enjoyed to finance a war and feed the poor. The powerful clergymen have hatched a plan that they hope will go over well with the king. They will offer to finance Henry's war with France. This will obviously cost them a lot less money; and the war will distract the king, they hope, from going forward with his plan to limit the wealth of the church.

Act 1, Scene 2

The king is in his throne room with his advisers. He calls for the Archbishop of Canterbury, who enters the room. Before the archbishop begins to talk, Henry reminds him of the huge responsibility that hangs over his head. Henry wants to hear the argument that the archbishop has come up with that gives Henry the right to claim the throne of France. If the archbishop can make an educated and rational argument to support that right, Henry is willing to go to war with France to claim the crown and the territory.

In a very complicated explanation, the archbishop describes the lineage of the French throne, which, according to what the French call the Salic law (Salic refers to an ancient Frankish tribe), cannot be passed down through the mother. This is why the French deny that Henry is the rightful heir to the French throne, since he is claiming it through his great-great grandmother. This is the French view.

The English do not honor such a law. The archbishop gives the council a brief account of the long history of the kings and queens of the French court and concludes that even the French do not fully apply the Salic law to the royal lineage, and therefore Henry's claim is as good as the current French king's, Charles VI. But the only way Henry can claim the throne is through battle. Although the church is offering to pay for the war, Henry is concerned that if he and his army leave England, rebels in Scotland, who want to take the English throne away from Henry, will invade the country. Therefore the archbishop suggests that Henry take only a small portion of his army to France and leave the larger portion to guard the homeland. The council agrees.

Then Henry calls for the delegation that has come from France. Representatives of the king of France and his son, called the Dauphin, come into the room. They have brought a symbolic gift from the Dauphin. It turns out to be a small chest of tennis balls, a symbol of Henry's so-called reckless youth. The Dauphin's message is that Henry is too immature to be successful in his attempt to claim the throne.

This outrages Henry, who tells the messengers that the Dauphin has made a grave mistake in underestimating and mocking him. He says to tell the Dauphin that the Dauphin's wit will not be enough to make his own people laugh when Henry's army ravages France's villages.

After the messengers leave, Henry makes the final decision to invade France.

Act 2, Prologue

The Chorus announces that all the men of England are afire with their zest to go to war. Soldiers are selling their land to buy horses. But there is also a warning. The French have found three men, whom they have paid, to kill King Henry. The three men are Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, knight of Northumberland.

Act 2, Scene 1

In a poor section of London, Bardolph and Nym, men who used to hang out with Sir John Falstaff and young Henry, before Henry became king, are sitting in the Boar's Head Tavern. Mistress Quickly, who is referred to as Hostess because she runs the tavern, and Pistol enter. Nym pulls out his sword. He is angry that Mistress Quickly has married Pistol, for Nym had once asked Quickly to marry him. Bardolph breaks up the fight. The men talk about going to war. Then Falstaff's servant boy comes to call them to Falstaff's room. The boy says Falstaff is dying. Quickly says the king has broken Falstaff's heart. Once Henry became king, he cut off his friendship with these men.

Act 2, Scene 2

In Southampton, Henry and his troops are about to set sail for France. Bedford, Exeter, and Westmorland discuss the fact that the king knows about the three traitors. The king enters with Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey (the traitors) and asks the three of them for their advice about another man who was heard talking against the king. Henry, setting them up, says he thinks this man should be excused because he was drunk at the time. But the three traitors tell the king that the man must be punished. Then, leading the traitors to believe that he is praising them, Henry gives each one a letter, saying that he is well aware of their worth. The men open the letters, discovering that the king knows of their plot to kill him. Henry asks what kind of punishment they think they deserve. Then he tells them that they will pay with their lives. After the men are taken away, Henry says that having found them out before they could kill him is a sign that fortune is on England's side.

Act 2, Scene 3

This is a brief scene that takes place back in London. Hostess announces that Falstaff is dead. Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol all mourn him. Then Pistol kisses his wife good-bye, and the men, including Falstaff's boy, go off to join the rest of the army.

Act 2, Scene 4

In France, King Charles VI, his son, the Dauphin, and the king's advisers discuss the impending confrontation with England. The Dauphin thinks King Henry is a fool, coming to France. He wants to fight the English forces, believing that France will take them down easily. King Charles and the Constable of France, however, disagree. They have heard that Henry's armies are strong and that Henry himself is greatly changed, no longer the irresponsible youth that the Dauphin still believes Henry to be. King Charles reminds his son that Henry is the descendant of King Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, who once ravaged France.

King Henry is now in France and sends one of his noblemen, Exeter, to deliver a message to King Charles. Exeter tells King Charles to abdicate the throne and crown in favor of Henry. King Charles asks what will happen if he does not. Exeter tells him that his country will fall in ruins.

Act 3, Prologue

The Chorus describes how swiftly England's forces sailed to France and landed at Harfleur on the French coast. King Charles sends a message that he will not give Henry the throne, but he will turn over some dukedoms to Henry and will give him his daughter, Katherine, as a wife. Henry refuses the offer.

Act 3, Scene 1

King Henry delivers a long speech to his men, arousing them to take the city of Harfleur. He explains that in peacetime men act with humility but when the horns of warfare blow, they must rise to the occasion and become wild and fierce creatures. They must rid themselves of their fair natures and fill themselves with rage. Then he sends them forth to battle.

Act 3, Scene 2

Nym, Pistol, and Bardolph, after hearing King Henry's speech, wish they were back in England. Fluellen, a Welsh captain, enters and reprimands the men, pushing them forward with his sword into the battle. Only Falstaff's boy is left behind. He talks to the audience, saying that he does not want to grow up to be like Nym, Pistol, or Bardolph, who have tried to teach him to steal.

Fluellen returns with Captain Gower. The soldiers discuss the mines, or the tunnels, that the English have dug to gain access to Harfleur. There is a discussion of the different cultures of the Irish, the Scots, and the English. Fluellen criticizes Captain Macmorris, a Scot, who is, according to Fluellen, building the tunnels incorrectly. Fluellen prefers Jamy, an Irishman. Macmorris appears with Jamy. All the men discuss their different military tactics and their philosophies. The discussion becomes heated, but the men quickly come back to their senses. They have an actual war to fight.

Act 3, Scene 3

Before the gates of Harfleur, horns are sounded, signaling a wish for a cease-fire from the local French leaders of Harfleur. Henry calls out to the mayor of the town, telling him to surrender. If the mayor allows the English soldiers entry to the town, the people will live, Henry tells him. If the mayor insists that the English continue fighting, the old people's heads will be bashed, the wives will be raped, the babies will be impaled. The mayor, telling Henry that the Dauphin has sent word that he cannot get a French army to Harfleur, reluctantly surrenders.

King Henry tells Exeter to secure the town. Henry will allow his men to rest, then they will march to Calais, and English-held territory.

Act 3, Scene 4

At the French palace, Katherine, the daughter of King Charles, is having a conversation with her lady-in-waiting, Alice. The curious thing about this scene is that it is mostly spoken in French. Katherine is asking Alice to tell her how to say certain words in English, such as hand, fingers, nails, neck, and chin. This is a playful scene and the audience's first glimpse of Katherine, the daughter the king had earlier used as a ploy to talk King Henry out of attacking villages in France. This scene contrasts with the previous battle scene and the bloody fight that waits ahead.

Act 3, Scene 5

The scene moves to a council room in the French palace. King Charles, the Dauphin, the Constable, and the Duke of Bourbon are discussing King Henry's advance into France. They define themselves as being more refined than the English, referring to the English as barbarous and savage. But they also wonder where the English army gets its strength. The Dauphin comments that the French women are laughing at the French lords, saying that they have lost their valor and gallantry and that the women will breed with the English soldiers to bring strength back into the French population.

King Charles, who has been reluctant to fully engage in war, changes his mind. He calls on all the lords of France to gather their men and prepare to meet the English on the battlefield. However, the French underestimate the power of Henry. The Constable states he feels sorry for King Henry and his men, who are tired and unprepared for the punishment that France is about to bestow on them. As the men leave, the French king, for some reason, tells the Dauphin to remain behind, to stay with him, telling him to be patient.

Act 3, Scene 6

The English forces have camped at Picardy. They have captured a significant bridge and are thankful. Fluellen and Gower are talking. Gower is telling Fluellen that one of the men, Pistol, wants to talk to him. Pistol comes in and asks Fluellen to forgive a crime that has been committed. Bardolph has been caught stealing from one of the local churches. Fluellen will have nothing to do with the pardon. It is the rule of the king. Fluellen believes Bardolph needs to be used as an example.

King Henry appears and talks with Fluellen, asking how many casualties the army has suffered. Fluellen says only one, the man who is about to be hanged for thievery.

Montjoy appears, a messenger from the French king. Montjoy tells King Henry that King Charles is ready to go to war. The French king, through Montjoy, explains that he has lost all patience and is ready to punish the English army for all the harm it has done. Henry, the French king states, should consider his ransom to the French court. This means that the French are asking Henry to turn himself in as a prisoner. At the end of Montjoy's message is a statement that, in essence, King Henry has condemned his men to death.

King Henry, although he knows his men are tired and weak and that the French army will outnumber them greatly, does not give in. Instead, he sends Montjoy back to the French court with a defiant message. First Henry says that in every English soldier there is the strength of three of the French. Then Henry apologizes for bragging. He decides to use another tactic. He tells Montjoy how broken and beaten his men are; and yet the army will move forward. Henry says he is not seeking a battle but if it comes, he and his men will face it. After Montjoy leaves, Gloucester tells Henry that he hopes the French army will not come. Henry tells him that they are in God's hands, not in the hands of the French.

Act 3, Scene 7

In this scene, the audience sees the French army camped at Agincourt. The Constable, the Dauphin, Lord Rambures, and the Duke of Orleans are there. They are discussing how solid their armor is, how strong their horses are. Then they brag about how many English soldiers they will kill the next day. After the Dauphin leaves, the Constable says that he thinks the Dauphin is weak. The Dauphin had talked about how many English he would kill, but the Constable thinks the Dauphin will kill no one. Then the French soldiers insult the English, insisting that if King Henry really understood his fate, he would run away with his men that night.

The French are so confident that they make jokes about the battle which will begin in the morning. The French army is so much bigger than the English, the sheer numbers alone make the battle look like it will be a disaster for the English.

Act 4, Prologue

The Chorus provides an overview of the two different camps—the overly confident French nobility as opposed to the English army, which is mostly common men who expect this may well be their last night of life. The Chorus also mentions how King Henry walks through the camp, talking to each soldier as if he were a brother, cheering his men, inspiring them to face the next day bravely.

Act 4, Scene 1

In the English camp, Henry greets Bedford and Gloucester, reminding them that since the odds are against them in this battle, they need to rouse all their courage. Henry then goes about the camp, not allowing anyone to see his face, talking to his men to find out what they are thinking on the night before the great battle. He first runs into Pistol. Despite the fact that just a little earlier, Henry condemned Bardolph to death, Pistol remains true to the king. Later, Henry speaks to other men about who is responsible for the casualties of a war. The men say the responsibility lies with the king, as do the casualties. Henry disagrees. He says the war is the king's responsibility, but each soldier is responsible for his life. In the end, the men agree. But they hold onto the belief that the king will allow himself to be ransomed, thus saving his own life. The soldiers will not be as fortunate, they say. Henry disagrees, saying that he believes the king will never ransom himself. Henry then prays that his men be instilled with courage.

Act 4, Scene 2

This is a brief scene at the French camp as the sun rises and the noblemen prepare for battle. They are still very arrogant, believing themselves so strong they merely have to blow on the English troops to be rid of them. The Dauphin even offers to send the English army food and new suits before the French fight them.

Act 4, Scene 3

The English have viewed the field and know they are outnumbered by five to one. Henry enters and turns this to their favor by stating that if they win, being so outnumbered, the greater the glory will be. Henry delivers a long, uplifting speech about how, if they outlive this day, the battle will mark them as heroes for the rest of their lives. Montjoy appears once more, offering Henry another chance to turn himself over for ransom. Henry sends Montjoy away.

Act 4, Scene 4

The battle has begun. Pistol fights with a French soldier, who begs for his life and promises Pistol some money. Pistol agrees. Falstaff's boy is there and sees what Pistol has just done. He claims that Bardolph and Nym were much braver and more valiant than Pistol.

Act 4, Scene 5

This is a scene of the battle from the French point of view, with the French nobles announcing that they have been shamed by the English army.

Act 4, Scene 6

King Henry and Exeter discuss the death of two of their men. When Henry sees the French soldiers regrouping, he orders that all the French prisoners be killed.

Act 4, Scene 7

Some of the English soldiers discover the slaughtered bodies of all the young English boy servants. Henry enters, enraged by the death of the boys. As Henry is ordering that more French throats be cut, Montjoy appears announcing that the battle has been won by the English.

Act 4, Scene 8

The English count the dead and those imprisoned. Exeter says that there are at least 1500 prisoners. A messenger tells Henry that there are ten thousand dead French soldiers. The messenger names the English nobles who are dead. There are four. Among the common men, there are only twenty-five that have been lost. God, Henry claims, as do his men, was on their side.

Act 5, Scene Prologue

The Chorus fills in the missing scenes between the end of the battle and the next scene at the French palace. Henry returns to England after the battle at Agincourt. He is welcomed as a hero but disallows a parade to celebrate the victory, playing down his role as warrior king. Time passes, and Henry returns to France.

Act 5, Scene 1

Fluellen and Pistol argue and throw insults at one another. When Pistol is left alone, he mentions that he has heard that the Hostess, his wife, is dead. He bemoans his bad fate.

Act 5, Scene 2

At the French palace, King Henry and King Charles meet. They sign an agreement that will ensure peace between the two countries. King Henry allows King Charles to retain the throne, but demands Katherine as his wife. In this way, their child will inherit the thrones of both countries. Henry and Katherine struggle through the language barriers as Henry tries to get Katherine to agree to marry him. She finally does so.

Act 5, Epilogue

The Chorus tells of the birth of a son to Katherine and Henry. He will become Henry VI, and he will lose France and put England at war again.



Alice is the lady-in-waiting, attending Katherine. Because she has been to England and has some familiarity with the language, Alice serves as Katherine's instructor and interpreter. Her only spoken lines occur in act 3, scene 4, a light-hearted scene, which is mostly spoken in French.

Archbishop of Canterbury

In order to keep the church's land and fortunes, the archbishop conceives a plan. He interprets the Salic law in such a way that it proves that King Henry has a rightful claim to the French throne. The archbishop tells Henry that the church will pay for the war against France, thus taking Henry's mind off a bill he was considering that would have diminished the church's fortunes. The king, in turn, warns the archbishop to be very sure of his interpretation, as many lives may be lost based on his words. Although Henry tells the archbishop that he will be responsible, at Agincourt, the king tells one of his soldiers that the king is not responsible for lives, exposing a contradiction in Shakespeare's work or in the character of Henry.


Bardolph, a commoner, is a character taken from Henry IV, a friend of Falstaff's and therefore part of the group that Prince Hal (King Henry in his youth) used to hang out with. In Henry V, Bardolph continues to befriend Nym and Pistol and is present when Falstaff dies. Bardolph goes to France with King Henry, but is hung for stealing from a French church. His death represents a definitive sign that King Henry has turned away from the rabble-rousers of his past and has matured into his role as king. Bardolph explicitly broke one of the king's rules, and Henry would not save him from hanging.

John Bates

Bates is a common soldier in the English army. He is one of the men who talks with Henry the night before the battle at Agincourt, as the king wanders throughout the camp disguised.

Bishop of Ely

The role of the bishop is not developed in this play. He is present, mostly just to give the archbishop someone to talk to. The bishop asks questions of the archbishop so as to provide more detailed information for the audience.

King Charles VI

Though it is not indicated in this play, Shakespeare's audience knew that King Charles VI of France was called the mad king. His feebleness might have been one of the reasons that King Henry decides to invade France, that and the incompetence of King Charles's son, the Dauphin. King Charles is also the father of Katherine, whom King Henry marries. King Charles is reluctant to do battle with the English forces until they near Agincourt. When he does give the order, the constable salutes the king with the phrase, "This becomes the great." This makes clear that the French nobles are anxious to do battle and are glad that the king finally commits to it.


  • Henry V was adapted to film and starred famed British actor Laurence Olivier, who also directed this classic piece in a very innovative manner, giving its audience a sense of what the play might have looked like, in part, in the sixteenth century. It is available from Paramount and produced in 1944 but is well ahead of its time.
  • Henry V was produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1979 as part of the "Shakespeare Plays" series. It is available from Ambrose Video Publishing.
  • Kenneth Branagh, who has starred in many of Shakespeare's dramas, plays the lead role in a 1989 production of Henry V distributed by CBS/Fox Video. Branagh also directed this adaptation.


The Chorus presents either a preview, summation, or conclusion of the dramatic action in the play. The Chorus's lines are written in blank verse and begin each of the acts, filling in information or setting the scene when the staged presentations are limited. Whereas the action of the play takes a realistic approach to the characters and their actions, the Chorus is more idealistic, possibly representing what the English audience wants to believe, while the dramatic action is Shakespeare's interpretation of what actually happened. Some critics have called the Chorus some of Shakespeare's worst writing, filled with common phrases, or platitudes, rather than Shakespeare's normally high standard of poetry.

Alexander Court

Court is a common soldier in the English army. Court has only one line in the play, pointing out the rising sun. This one line, however, signals the tension the English are experiencing on the morning of the battle.

Charles Delabreth, Constable of France

The constable is probably the most effective of the French noblemen surrounding the king of France. He is level-headed and attempts to calm down the Dauphin who is overly emotional and often blinded as to King Henry's power. The constable is killed at the battle of Agincourt.

Duke of Bedford

The Duke of Bedford is a minor character who makes brief appearances in the beginning of the play. He is one of Henry's brothers.

Duke of Berry

The Duke of Berry is one of the dukes that the French king sends to meet King Henry's men at Harfleur.

Duke of Bourbon

Bourbon is one of the leaders of the French army at the Battle of Agincourt.

Duke of Britain

The Duke of Britain is ordered by the French king to stop King Henry's soldiers.

Duke of Burgundy

The Duke of Burgundy is French, but he helps Henry V establish power in France by acknowledging Henry's right to the French throne at the end of the play.

Duke of Clarence

Clarence is another of Henry's brothers. He plays a minor role.

Duke of Exeter

Exeter is Henry's uncle and the half-brother of Henry IV. Throughout the play, Exeter is at Henry's side, advising him, supporting him, following him throughout the play. It is Exeter that Henry sends to meet with the French king when the English land in France.

Duke of Gloucester

Gloucester is another of Henry's brothers. He appears at the Battle of Agincourt and worries about the French. It is to Gloucester that Henry says the results of the battle are in God's hands, not in the hands of the French.

Duke of Orleans

Orleans is a leader of the French army at the Battle of Agincourt. Orleans is one of the characters that demonstrate the arrogance of the French on the night before the battle.

Duke of York

The Duke of York is one of Henry's men. He appears in act 4 and asks to lead one section of Henry's army.

Earl of Grandpré

The Earl of Grandpré is with the French army as it prepares to fight at Agincourt. He is impatient with the constable and wants to begin the battle immediately.

Earl of Huntingdon

The Earl of Huntingdon is a British nobleman who helps to command the battle at Agincourt.

Earl of Salisbury

The Earl of Salisbury appears in act 5 with Henry V's men as they fight the French army.

Earl of Warwick

The Earl of Warwick is a British nobleman who is one of Henry's advisers.

Earl of Westmorland

The Earl of Westmorland is an adviser of Henry's who encourages the king to fight for the crown of France.

Sir Thomas Erpingham

Erpingham is an English officer in Henry's army. When he and the king are preparing to go to bed in the camp before the Agincourt Battle, Erpingham says it is one of the few times that he can say that he goes to bed like a king.

Captain Fluellen

Fluellen is a Welsh captain in the English army. Fluellen helps overtake the French city of Harfleur and helps the king keep discipline among the men. It is to Fluellen that Pistol appeals for Bardolph's life when Bardolph is caught stealing from a church in France.

Governor of Harfleur

After failing to receive help from the Dauphin, the governor yields his city to the English, who occupy it and defend it against the French.

Captain Gower

Gower is an English officer in Henry's army. He is often seen with Fluellen in the battle camp scenes in France.

Sir Thomas Grey

Grey is one of the three English traitors, along with Cambridge and Scroop. He has conspired with the French against the life of Henry V. Grey is sentenced to death.

King Henry V

King Henry is known as Prince Hal in Henry IV. But in this play, Henry has matured and has recently acquired the title of king. He is concerned about gaining his subjects' loyalty and decides to wage war on France in order to claim the throne in France and to quiet rebellion at home.

Shakespeare demonstrates that Henry is a complex creature who has many facets to his personality. He can forgive a threat to his life and yet threaten to kill babies. He humbles himself to God and yet massacres French prisoners. He leads a small army to battle against a large, well-equipped French army and then softly woos Katherine. As usual, Shakespeare leaves it up to the audience to decide just who Henry might have been.

However, Henry is a complicated character whom many audiences cannot figure out. But most agree, after seeing this play, that Shakespeare shows him to be a great military leader who delivers many speeches that have been praised as some of the best in all of Shakespeare's plays.

Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham

Henry is one of the three English traitors, along with Cambridge and Grey. Scroop was at one time close to the king, which makes Henry especially disgusted with him. In the scene in which the traitors are caught and sentenced to death, Henry calls Scroop an inhuman savage.

Queen Isabel

The Queen of France is King Charles's wife and the Dauphin's and Katherine's mother.

Captain Jamy

Jamy is a Scottish captain in the English army. Jamy, Fluellen, and Macmorris are instrumental in the capture of the city of Harfleur.

Princess Katherine

Katherine is the daughter of King Charles and Queen Isabel. She appears only twice. She is seen with her lady-in-waiting as she tries to learn English and then again at the end of the play when she meets with King Henry. Eventually Katherine marries Henry to restore peace to France and unite the two countries. Although it does not occur in the play, the Chorus does announce that Katherine gives birth to a son (who eventually becomes King Henry VI). Shakespeare creates her character as a witty and intelligent woman who is shy in front of the king, mostly because of their language barriers and their different customs, such as when Henry wants to kiss her and she must refuse. Her role is very small in this play, possibly reflecting the fact that she and Henry were not married very long before Henry's death and he was gone at war most of that time. There were also rumors that Katherine had an affair with another man in Henry's absence, so Shakespeare may have decided that their love was not strong enough to warrant dramatic scenes inspired by it.

Monsieur le Fer

Monsieur le Fer, a French soldier, appears in act 4 with Pistol. The French soldier gives money to Pistol in order to save his own life.

Louis, The Dauphin

The Dauphin (also referred to as the Dolphin) is the eldest son of King Charles and Queen Isabel. The Dauphin constantly overestimates himself and underestimates Henry V and the English army, with disastrous consequences for the French. He is arrogant and frivolous. He claims, right before the Battle at Agincourt, that he will kill many English soldiers. However, the French nobles around him know that the Dauphin is a coward and probably will not kill anyone.

Captain Macmorris

Macmorris is an Irish captain in the English army. Macmorris bravely contributes to the victory at Harfleur.


Montjoy is a French herald. He brings messages to Henry from Charles first demanding Henry's surrender, then later acknowledging Henry's victory. In his first speeches, Montjoy delivers his messages in a defiant tone; but as he grows to know Henry, there is a sense of respect in his voice.

Nell Hostess

Formerly Mistress Nell Quickly, in Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hostess is now the wife of Pistol and the manager of the inn. Hostess tells Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph of Falstaff's death. After the battle at Agincourt, Pistol informs the audience that Hostess, his wife, has died.


Nym, like Bardolph and Pistol, is one of the friends who are associated with Falstaff. When he first appears on stage, he is angry with Pistol for having married Quickly (Hostess). Nym had wanted to marry her. After Falstaff dies, Nym joins the English army and goes to France.


Pistol is one of Bardolph's and Nym's friends. He is married to Quickly (Hostess). Pistol pleads for Bardolph's life after Bardolph is sentenced to be hung for stealing from a church in France. During the Agincourt battle, Pistol makes a deal with a French soldier, who gives Pistol money so he will not kill him. After the battle at Agincourt, Pistol lets the audience know that Quickly has died.

Mistress Quickly

See Nell Hostess.

Richard, Earl of Cambridge

Cambridge is one of the three English traitors, along with Scroop and Grey, who conspire with the French against the life of Henry V. Along with the other two traitors, Cambridge is sentenced to death.

Michael Williams

Williams is a common soldier in the English army. He talks with Henry the night before Agincourt as the king wanders through the camp disguised. Williams is the soldier who argues with Henry over the king's responsibility for his men. Williams gives his glove to Henry, challenging him in a bet that the king will ransom himself to the French if the English lose the battle.



The theme of kingship, or how Shakespeare perceived the role of a king, is demonstrated in his play Henry V. Shakespeare's characterization of King Henry V establishes Henry's right to kingship by illustrating the qualities required of a true king in several different ways. Henry focuses on both securing his right to the English crown and capturing the French throne. He follows the advice given to him by his father at the end of Shakespeare's earlier play Henry IV, Part Two, to keep the minds of his subjects busy by diverting attention to foreign quarrels. Henry V accomplishes this task by waging war on France and asserting his claim to the French throne. The throne was denied his great-great-grandmother because of the Salic law, which made succession through the female line illegal. The war against France establishes both Henry's legal and moral right to the throne. By discrediting the Salic law and defeating the French army, Henry captures the crown; and by accepting responsibility and showing concern for his subjects, he earns the ethical right to kingship as well.

Henry's moral growth and acceptance of his role as king is seen throughout the play. Some of the characteristics of kingship include the king's relationship to his counselors, his divinity, his valid succession, and the burden of kingship. As king, Henry serves as the link between personal order and political unity and is required to show complete dedication to his office. He cannot allow selfishness or weakness to interfere with his duties as king.

Most critics agree that although Henry struggles to achieve a balance between the demands of the crown and his own personal desires, by the end of the play he has accepted his role and learned to integrate his humanity with the office of king.

Patriotism and War

Many modern critics have explored the pervasive presence of war and patriotism in Henry V. Some commentators contend that the play is primarily concerned with the price of patriotism, arguing that Henry finally becomes controlled by the role he has assumed, despite the costs. The interaction between structure and theme can be seen throughout the three central movements of the plot: the preparation for war, the combat itself, and the concluding of peace. In addition, scholars have praised Shakespeare's accurate portrayal of Renaissance warfare through his use of specific details such as the slaughter of the prisoners and threats of plundering, sacking, and burning.

Sense of History and Nationalism

The idea of nations in the time of Henry V, or even in Shakespeare's time, was not as defined as it is in the twenty-first century, especially in England and France. Kings and queens were often related to one another, whether they lived in England or France. The English owned land in France because most of the early English monarchs had been born in France and had therefore inherited the lands. Thus, the boundaries between the two countries were relatively blurred.

However, the concept of nations was emerging and growing stronger in Shakespeare's time. Also the Renaissance had arrived in England during Shakespeare's life, which influenced the portrayal of historical events and the details of how England and France had become what they were up to that point. The sense of history is reflected in this play, which is actually the last in a series of three of Shakespeare's plays, which includes Richard II and Henry IV. The series is called a tetralogy. The three plays follow the development of France and England through the actions of the English monarchs and their relationships, both political and biological, with the monarchy of France. With the battle at Agincourt, King Henry finally wins the right to the throne, though he never actually sits on throne, because he will die two months prior to that opportunity.

Divine Intervention

There are several references in this play to God's intervention on behalf of, or God's blessing of, the English army in its bid to win the French throne. Although this was not a religious war, Shakespeare has Henry acknowledge the idea that God is on his side. The first time this happens is when the three traitors are discovered before Henry leaves England. He takes the fact that the attempt to assassinate him was thwarted as a sign from God that he is doing the right thing, that in fact the English might even win the war. In act 2, scene 2, Henry says: "Since God so graciously hath brought to light / This dangerous treason, lurking in our way / To hinder our beginnings. We doubt not now / But every rub is smoothed on our way." The hand of God, in other words, has smoothed the path to France for the English army.

Henry invokes the power of God again in act 3, scene 7, on the night before the battle at Agincourt. Gloucester hopes that the French might not attack; but Henry says: "We are in God's hand, brother, not in theirs." Then again in act 4, scene 3, in his speech to the troops before the big battle, Henry tries to cheer his men up. They all know by now that the French outnumber them overwhelmingly, and yet Henry tells them "The fewer men, the greater share of honor. / God's will! I pray thee wish not one man more." With this statement, Henry is telling his men that the fact that the numbers are stacked against them is God's will. With the French army so big and the English army so small, the English victory will be that much more significant. Henry is also warning his men not to pray for something that God has already ordained. If God means for them to go against a bigger army, then so be it.

Arrogance Leading to Misconception

Shakespeare's French characters are arrogant in many different ways. The first demonstration of this arrogance is the Dauphin's so-called gift of tennis balls, signifying that the Dauphin takes Henry's threat to his French crown as insignificant as a game of tennis. Later, the Dauphin plays down the danger involved in Henry's crossing the English Channel and landing on French soil. His arrogance appears to infect some of the other nobles, even up to the point of the night before the battle at Agincourt, after Henry has ravaged Harfleur. The arrogance of the French makes them blind to their own disadvantages, or weaknesses. They boast about their horses and weaponry and make jokes about the English, instead of investigating the battlefield or spying on them. They do question where the English get their strength, but their attitude is so saturated with arrogance that they cannot perceive that the English might hurt them, let alone completely defeat them.

In contrast, Shakespeare has the English appear as humble commoners, men who believe they might see another day. Instead of arrogance, they are filled with the passion to capture what is rightfully theirs. The king bows to a higher source, putting his life and the lives of his men in God's hands.


Responsibility is another theme that runs through this play. It begins with the first act, when King Henry warns the archbishop to carefully weigh his decision as to whether or not England has a right to the French throne. In essence, Henry is telling the archbishop that what he says and how he has interpreted the law could cost lives and bring hardships, as well as change the course of history.

Later, in act 2, scene 2, when Henry confronts the three traitors, he somewhat contradicts himself in terms of responsibility. Henry excuses the man who "railed against our person," as Henry states it, forgiving the man's irresponsible behavior because the man was drunk. However, when it comes to Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge, the traitors, Henry tells them that they will lose their lives. As Henry makes clear, they have not acted responsibly, for by assassinating the king, they would have put so many others at risk. Further, Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge received money from the enemy French to execute the plot. The consequences of their actions, Henry says, would have been enormous. It was their responsibility as nobles to have thought the assassination through. Whereas the drunken man might have only muttered a vagrant, impulsive thought, the king holds the nobles to a higher standard because they had a better sense of the consequences.

In act 4, scene 1, the idea of responsibility appears for a third time. Henry disguises himself on the night before the battle at Agincourt. He then has conversations with some of his men. Two of those soldiers, Bates and Williams, question the king concerning the battle they are about to fight and whose responsibility it is. The men say that it is the king's. Henry, however, only takes part of that responsibility. He says the king is responsible for the war, but each man must take responsibility for his own life. Every subject's duty is to the king, but every subject's soul is his own. If, in other words, a soldier believes that what the king tells him to do is wrong, then it is on the soldier's conscience if he does the thing he believes is wrong. If the king knows it is wrong but the soldier carries out whatever act the king requests, then the wrong is on the king's conscience.

Cultural Stereotypes

As in many of Shakespeare's other plays, there is a discussion about cultural differences. Whether it is the difference between the Italians and the Moors in Shakespeare's Othello or the Italians and the Jews in The Merchant of Venice, some characters clash because they come from dissimilar countries. In Henry V this occurs between the French and English, as well as between the Scots, the Irish, and the English.

The French make references to the English, such as in act 3, scene 5, when the Constable refers to the English as being cold and pale because their climate is "foggy, raw, and dull." In comparison, the Constable claims, the French are enlivened with "quick blood, spirited with wine." And then before the big battle at Agincourt, the French noble Orleans refers to the English soldiers as King Henry's "fatbrained followers." Even when the French Rambures tries to find something good to say about the English, he is put down by his peers. Rambures thinks that the English are valiant. He points to the brave mastiffs (a large breed of dog) that the English raise. But Orleans points out that though the mastiffs are brave, they are also stupid, rushing a large bear only to have their heads chomped off.

It is not just the French who point out cultural stereotypes, though. Some of Henry's men do the same among themselves. Although their conversation is not as blatantly warped in stereotypes, there is a strain in relationships between Fluellen, who is Welsh, and Macmorris, who is Irish. They are both fighting at the command of an English king for a united cause, but Fluellen seems determined to prove that Macmorris knows nothing of Roman war tactics, which Fluellen, obviously holds in high esteem. At one point in their discussion in act 3, scene 2, Fluellen calls to Macmorris by saying "there is not many of your nation—" and is then interrupted by Macmorris, who has taken offense. "Of my nation? What ish [sic] my nation?" It can be assumed that Fluellen was about to make a broad, generalized statement about the Irish. Macmorris would not let Fluellen finish what he was saying because he sensed the stereotypical statement coming.

Shakespeare often writes his parts for Irish, French, Welsh, and Scottish characters in broken English. In some plays, he also has some of his English characters make fun of the accents. There were political tensions between these countries, and such tensions can lead to stereotyping. Whether Shakespeare was just reflecting these stereotypes so that his audience could analyze them or think about them, or whether Shakespeare used the stereotypical statements to make his audiences laugh, or whether he used them because he himself was caught up in the stereotypes is not certain.


  • Research the battle at Agincourt. Bring to class a display of the details you have uncovered. The display can be in the form of a chart, a series of photographs, a PowerPoint demonstration, or any other presentation of your choice. The idea is to try to mimic the battle at Agincourt with as much detail as possible. What were the strategies of the French? Of the English? What types of weapons did each side use? How many soldiers were involved? How many horses on each side? What were the jobs of the young boys? Provide as much information as you can gather.
  • Find as many portraits of King Henry V as you can, then create a likeness of the monarch. You can use any medium you choose: oil paint, charcoal, water color, pen and ink. You can also make a three-dimensional bust out of clay or other material. By some historical accounts, Henry was called an ugly king. What do you think? Ask your classmates to vote on Henry's looks.
  • Imagine that you lived in the Middle Ages in England. Your cousin lived in France. How would your lives differ? How would they be the same? After doing your research for this topic, write two letters: one from you as a teenager in England and a response from your French cousin. In the letters talk about the activities, the challenges, the entertainment, and details of your family life that you might have experienced in the course of one week. Read your letters to your class.
  • Find out about the medical practices at the time of the Battle at Agincourt. How were the wounds of soldiers treated? Were there any antiseptics? Were there pain killers? How did medics fix broken bones? How did they sew wounds closed? How did they treat dysentery? Were there any other typical diseases that the soldiers were vulnerable to, especially on a long march, such as the English soldiers had to endure? Share your research with your class.
  • Map out the journey that King Henry took from London to Agincourt. How did the army travel? How many miles did some soldiers have to walk? How long did it take them to cross the English Channel? Show all your details on a map and present your findings to your class.


Shakespearian Language Specific to Henry V

While analysis of the language in Henry V has yielded different critical interpretations, most scholars agree that the rhetoric used in this play makes a significant contribution to the drama's theme, tone, and meaning. For example, some critics point out that the language requires strenuous effort from its actors to perform, as well as requiring effort from audiences to grasp. These critics point out that this effort relates to the atmosphere of activity in the play as the king decides to go to war and then must prepare his men for the arduous journey and grueling battles that must be fought. Other critics focus on how the language changes as it parallels the preparations for war, the battles, and then the peaceful conclusion. The mode of speech changes from beginning to end, starting with a tone of agreement (the choric appeal to English nationalism, the request for cooperation between the performer and the audience, and the first scenes showing the church and state working together), then moving to a tone of dispute during the war, and concluding with a return to a softer tone as Henry woos Katherine.

Critics also have often debated whether the language of Henry V equals that found in the first two plays of Shakespeare's second tetralogy, which includes Richard II and Henry IV. A number of scholars contend that the language is flatter and less powerful in Henry V than in the previous plays. Richard II and Henry IV contain speeches and passages that are more poetic, they say. However, other critics maintain that the prose in Henry V is more natural and deceptively close to common speech, making the depth and artistry of the language more subtle and equally as artful as in the more prominent speeches in Shakespeare's other plays.

Epic Elements

Shakespeare's use of epic elements in Henry V has elicited much critical attention. By far the most panoramic of his plays, Henry V dramatizes an epic theme and celebrates a legendary hero. According to several scholars, the play therefore fulfills most of the formal requirements of classical epic, in that its hero is of national significance; it emphasizes destiny and the will of God; its action is impressive in scale and centers upon war; and it includes a narrator (the Chorus), an invocation to the Muse, a large number of warriors, battle taunts and challenges, and other traditional epic devices. Most commentators agree that Shakespeare's use of epic elements contributes significantly to the success of the play, stating that an epic drama is the only fitting way to celebrate the noble deeds of Henry V.

Scholars repeatedly focus on the role of the Chorus in exposing the limitations of the Elizabethan stage. Many critics remark that the function of the Chorus is to apologize for the unsuitability of the stage to the grandeur of an epic. However, other commentators point out that Shakespeare's audience would never have expected the kind of cinematic realism that modern theatergoers have come to expect. Though the Chorus fulfills several functions as narrator—creating atmosphere, explaining lapses of time and shifts in locale, apologizing for the limitations of the theater—its most important function is to evoke an epic mood. The Chorus also creates structural unity in the play by building narrative bridges between the five acts.

Dramatic Soliloquy

A soliloquy is a speech given as if the actor were talking to him- or herself, exposing thoughts and emotions but supposedly doing so without anyone (but the audience) hearing what is being said. It is like an interior monologue that one might have with oneself. Through the soliloquy, the actor not only offers the audience a glimpse into his or her inner thoughts but also into his or her personality or character. In Henry V, on the night before the battle at Agincourt, Henry considers his role as king through a soliloquy. One of his men has engaged Henry in a discussion of responsibility. Henry reflects on the topic when he is alone. His thoughts are private. It can be assumed that he does not want his men to know how he feels. It is an important reflection, one that Shakespeare wanted the audience to hear and to remember. The soliloquy is written in iambic pentameter, ten stressed and unstressed syllables to each line, providing a regulated rhythm. The form is blank verse, so it flows like poetry but there is no rhyme.

Dramatic Monologue

Henry V has many monologues, which are speeches of several lines in length delivered in a drama by one individual to one or more person without expectations of anyone responding. The monologues stand out from the normal dialogue because they are long, for one thing, but also because they too, like soliloquies, are written in blank verse. All of the Prologues that open every act are written as monologues, as are many of the English king's speeches to his troops. Some of the more powerful monologues of the king include Henry's rebuttal to the Dauphin after having sent the tennis balls (in act 1, scene 2), that begins, "We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us," which sets in motion England going to war with France. Another powerful monologue is the one the king delivers to Scroop in act 2, scene 2, which begins, "God quit you in his mercy! Hear your sentence." This monologue depicts the heavy consequences that the traitors would have inflicted on their country had they killed Henry. Finally, to arouse his men before the battle at Agincourt, King Henry delivers his monologue about the Feast of Crispian. The monologue is found in act 4, scene 3, and begins "What's he that wishes so?" As these monologues demonstrate, this form of writing makes certain parts of the play stand out. Through the monologues, particular passages are etched in the minds of audiences, so they take home the more important messages of the play.


Henry V

Henry was born in Wales, in 1387, the oldest son of Henry of Bolingbroke (later to become King Henry IV) and Mary Bohun. In 1398, Henry's father was exiled by the reigning monarch, Richard II, who kept Henry's son and raised him in court. Henry's father snuck back into England the following year, while Richard II was at war in Ireland. He gathered forces and won claim to land throughout the country and was eventually named king. Richard II was imprisoned and later died. The line of inheritance then switched to Henry, which caused much jealousy in the line of Richard II's heirs, Henry's cousins.

Henry was quite an accomplished soldier, having seen battle at the early age of fourteen. Two years later, at the age of sixteen, Henry commanded his father's troops at the battle of Shrewsbury. It was at this battle that Henry received a severe wound, an arrow striking him in the face. Until 1408, Henry was often involved in squelching uprisings in Wales.

Shortly after his coronation, Henry V fought down an uprising by Lollards (members of a religious and political movement led by the theologian John Wyclif) outside of London and put an end to an assassination plot by some of his nobles who were still seeking to restore the monarchy to the descendants of Richard II.

As his reign became somewhat settled at home, King Henry V turned his attention to France. Although Shakespeare puts forward the theory that church officials instigated the move, others have speculated that the feebleness of Charles VI of France, who was said to have a mental illness, and the ineptness of his son might also have concerned Henry, who would have benefited from a more stable France. And so he decided to claim the throne. He asked for the French king's daughter's hand prior to leaving England, but the French king refused. Henry had no other choice than to invade France and take the throne by force.

After wining the battle at Agincourt, Henry later went on to capture Normandy and Rouen. He was beating a path toward Paris. In 1419, the French gave in to Henry. A year later, Henry signed the Treaty of Troyes and married King Charles VI's daughter, Katherine. As stated in the treaty, King Charles VI of France would bypass his own son as heir to the French throne, thus giving it to Henry.

In 1421, Katherine was crowned Henry's queen and gave birth to a son, who became Henry VI upon his father's death. Henry died of dysentery in 1422 while engaged in battle in France. Had Henry lived two months longer, he would have been crowned king of both England and France. Henry V reigned over England from 1413 until his death in 1422.

Charles VI

Charles VI of France was known by two subtitles: Charles the Beloved and Charles the Mad. Charles was born in 1368 and ruled France from 1380 until 1422, making him only forty-seven years old at the time of the battle at Agincourt. Although he was not that old, he was infirm by then with what might today be diagnosed as schizophrenia or possibly bipolar disorder. He was known for attacking some of his own men on their way to battle, running naked through the palace, and at times believing he was made of glass. Some believe that the king's daughter, Katherine, passed the king's mental illness onto her son, the future king of England, Henry VI. The king's mental illness also led many people in France to believe that the Treaty of Troyes, which would have made Henry V king of France, was invalid.

English Pastimes during Henry V's Reign

Although war, the plague, and famine were all too familiar in fifteenth-century England, there were ways in which people also celebrated or otherwise enjoyed themselves. There were competitions, such as in archery, a popular sport. Given the military uses of the bow and arrow, archery could be very competitive. But competition could also be seen in an early version of English football (soccer). A game called camp ball, in which teams of men and women engaged, was played with a ball made of a pig's bladder filled with dried beans. Hunting and fishing were two other sports that not only provided food for the table but were also considered good training for young boys who would more than likely end up serving in the military. The young nobles often rode horses and followed a pack of dogs that either killed the animals or held them at bay, waiting for the young men to arrive with their bows and arrows.

Tournaments, testing the skill and courage of knights, lords, and other combatants, were often held throughout the country. Lances were most often used by two men who rode at full charge toward one another. Sometimes a wooden barrier would be placed between the two sides of the track to keep the men's horses from running into one another. Although these tournaments were also looked at as training for military maneuvers, sometimes the two opponents were settling a personal grudge.

But not every entertainment related to warfare. There were also parlor games such as cards, dice, and board games, like early versions of backgammon and chess. Card games offered the players a chance to gamble. The cards that were used were often made of wood and painted by hand. There were also sports such as wrestling, horse racing, and cockfighting to while away the time.

In the arts, mystery plays, derived from stories in the Bible, were very popular. Morality plays, which were meant to teach a specific lesson, were also common fare. These plays were often acted on stages on the backs of wagons that rolled from one town to the next.

Fifteenth-Century English Longbow

One of the reasons the English enjoyed many victories over Ireland, Wales, and France was because of the soldiers' proficiency with longbows. Rather than the normal bow of about three feet in length, longbows were at least five to six feet long, as tall or taller than the men that used them. The weapons were light to carry, cheap to own, blasted an arrow a long distance, and were easy to master. Arrows shot from longbows were also devastatingly powerful, creating deep and wide wounds. The arrows could fly, by some estimates, two hundred or more yards. Longbows were easily reloaded and a master archer could shoot from ten to twenty arrows a minute, some records state. Even after the introduction of the first firearms, bowmen using longbows could shoot several arrows before the newfangled guns could fire one bullet.

It is believed that a typical longbow was made from a single sapling from an English yew. It took several years of curing and shaping for a bow to be fit to use. The string of the bow was made of flax or hemp. Arrows were about twenty-seven inches long, with four-inch arrowheads equipped with barbs that made them difficult to extract.

The War Campaign to France and the Battle at Agincourt

King Henry V needed money to finance programs. He also needed to strengthen his image, which was contaminated by his flamboyant youth. Claiming the throne of France and committing himself and his troops to take it by force would serve those two causes, if he were victorious.

King Henry and his ships landed at Harfleur on the northern coast of France on August 13, 1415. The English met with no resistance upon landing and soon marched to the town, which was well fortified with a thick wall more than two miles in diameter with numerous towers. The English had several cannons and catapults. Their troops numbered over ten thousand, with roughly eight thousand archers and two thousand mounted soldiers. The French were said to have about four hundred fighting men. The town had a large cache of food and supplies, however, so there was no hope of starving them into an early surrender.

The English battered the walls around Harfleur and dug tunnels under them, crumbling the city's best defense. The conflict lasted until September 22. Although successful in the battle at Harfleur, the English suffered many casualties, possibly as many as one-third of the men. Most were lost to illness. The battle was fought in the heat of summer; and the makeshift camp had no proper sanitation. Dysentery soon swept through the camp, the same illness that would kill the young king seven years later. After the battle at Harfleur, the town became an English seaport.

From Harfleur, Henry drove his troops toward Calais, an English stronghold, hoping to spend the winter there, giving him time to re-equip his army. Unfortunately for King Henry and his troops, the French, under Constable d'Albret, had gathered between Calais and Harfleur and forced the English into battle. The English army had marched over two hundred miles, were running out of food, and many were still sick. They were in no condition to fight a rested, well-armored enemy. The English followed the coastline to the Somme River, then they turned east, looking for a safe place to ford the river. The fall had been a very rainy one; and the river was very full and dangerous. The French troops stationed themselves at a place of safe crossing, forcing Henry and his army to travel farther east, away from Calais, before they could cross the river. This added miles as well as days to their march, depleting the food supplies further and exhausting the men. On the other side of the river, the French army was waiting at Agincourt, in between Henry and Calais. Henry did not want to fight; but he would not back down. He wanted the throne and would not stop at anything less.

It had been raining for many days. The field at Agincourt had been recently plowed and was now swampy. This would work to the English army's advantage. The French were heavy with armor, both the men and their horses. Once they fell down, many became stuck in the mud, which in some places was waist deep. At least one French duke was said to have drowned. The English troops, many in bare feet and bare legs, had less trouble moving on the muddy field. Another advantage was the passion of King Henry as the leader of the English troops. The frail French king did not lead his men, and the French army suffered greatly from disorganization. Most of the nobles led the first line of the French troops. When they fell, the ranks to the rear of the French army fled.

France lost ten thousand men, many from the French nobility, including Constable d'Albret. The French military would go on, in future decades, to learn from this experience, taking back the land the English once claimed. But on this day, Saint Crispin's Day, October 25, the English were victorious.


  • 1400s: The English forces under King Henry V's leadership defeat the French heavily armored army, which outnumbered them five to one, by employing longbows and fast-loading arrows.
    Today: Terrorists wreak havoc on well-equipped United States and British troops in Iraq, employing guerrilla war tactics such as suicide bombings.
  • 1400s: King Henry V leads his troops in battle in an attempt to claim the English right to the French throne.
    Today: Queen Elizabeth II visits French president Jacques Chirac to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Franco-British Accords, a pact to join forces in military defense of their countries.
  • 1400s: King Henry V marries the daughter of King Charles VI of France, strengthening the royal bond between France and England. The marriage is well received in London.
    Today: Heir to the British throne, Prince Charles marries Camilla Parker Bowles, duchess of Cornwall. Camilla, who has a right to be called queen once her husband is crowned, will defer the title, because of public resentment toward her. The public disapproved of Camilla and Prince Charles's adulterous affair while Charles was still married to Princess Diana.
  • 1400s: The town of Harfleur is a bustling fishing port and a center of the cloth trade with an emphasis on weaving and dyeing. It sits at the mouth of Seine River on the English Channel.
    Today: Harfleur is a town of industries and is most often considered a suburb of Le Havre. Population is estimated at less than 10,000. Due to heavy silting of the estuary of the Seine, Harfleur is no longer a major port on the English Channel.

The Hundred Years' War

The battle at Agincourt was just one of the many bloody conflicts between England and France. A fight for land and kingship had been going on for many decades before King Henry V and would continue for a few decades after his death. England and France fought one another almost continually between 1337 and 1453. This long battle is referred to as the Hundred Years' War.

The claim of English royalty to the French crown has a long and complicated history. It all began before the structured nations that are known today had created sturdy foundations. At one time, for instance, the Normans came into the northern part of France in the tenth century and claimed the territory. The Normans then, under the leadership of William the Conqueror, moved across the channel and claimed England in the century that followed. As descendants of William the Conqueror, English kings claimed the right to Normandy and other lands in what is today French territory. As time went by, England, through a series of battles, lost more and more of that French land; and the Hundred Years' War marks England's concerted effort to finally reclaim it and the authority to rule the people who lived there.

King Edward III, angered by the continual erosion of his control over the lands in France, claimed he was the rightful king of both England and France and went to war to force the French to surrender to him. Edward eventually captured Calais, the English stronghold that Henry V was trying to reach after his battle in Harfleur. Another war ended in 1373, this time with the French winning. That set the scene for Henry V, who regained the right to the French throne. By 1429, England again controlled a lot of French territory. This would be the high point of English control in France. By 1451, almost all land had been restored to France, except that of Calais. England became distracted by its own wars at home after that and stopped pursuing its claim of authority over France.


In her Introduction to the 1999 Penguin Books published texts of Henry V, Claire McEachern writes that Henry V is both "the capstone and the keystone of Shakespeare's engagement with the English history play." This play, McEachern continues, "portrays a high, and perhaps unique, moment in English national history, when it represents a country both internally unified and internationally victorious." Structurally, McEachern points out, "Shakespeare signals" a "contrast between ideal and real perspectives on political community." He does so through the use of a Chorus before every act. It is through the Chorus, McEachern writes, that Shakespeare sets up the ideal, "relentlessly optimistic and positive in presenting future events." This contrasts with the scenes that follow, which often conflict with that positive attitude, such as depicting treason and battles that must be fought. "But if Shakespeare refuses to let the ideal vision of warfare and national unity stand unmolested, at the same time he insists, in an inspiring and rousing rhetoric, on the ennobling capacities of participation in a myth of unity and union." McEachern emphasizes the power of the dramatic monologue that King Henry delivers at Agincourt right before the battle. "Henry produces what is undoubtedly among the most spine-tingling of calls to battle in Shakespeare or anywhere else."

In concluding her critique of the play, McEachern writes, "The idealizing pressures of Henry V may at times cloy and coerce; but we ultimately forgive the play its glorifications, not only because we too crave a world where the underdog is the victor, few of the good guys die, and the hero gets the girl, but because we also know … that such things are all too rare and fleeting."

Harold C. Goddard, in his book The Meaning of Shakespeare, begins his analysis of Henry V by summing up other critics' comments. "There is near-unanimity among critics that Henry V is not a marked success as a play," Goddard begins. Some critics, Goddard goes on, have written that Shakespeare's play "contains much that is splendid and picturesque, these merits cannot atone for [the play's] intellectual and dramatic poverty." This is not, however, Goddard's opinion. Goddard writes: "Before accepting these judgments as final, it is worth noting the presumptive unlikelihood that Shakespeare would have produced a poor play, or even a second-rate one." Goddard is of the opinion that critics who have written against this play might have overlooked Shakespeare's intentions, because Henry V was the "culminating play of his great historical series." The critics who relegate this play to such a low position, at this time of Shakespeare's writing career, Goddard continues, seem to believe that "Shakespeare more or less goes to pieces as a playwright and substitutes pageantry and patriotism for his proper business, drama." Goddard dispels this thought. He states that telling a story about a hero-king is a difficult task. "To tell it and to keep the piece in which you tell it popular calls for more than courage. Shakespeare did as life does. Life places both its facts and its intoxicants before us and bids us make out of the resulting clash what we can and will." Goddard continues, "God does not indicate what we shall think of his world or of the men and women he has created. He puts them before us. But he does not compel us to see them as they are. Neither does Shakespeare."

S. Schoenbaum, writing in his book Shakespeare, His Life, His Language, His Theater, points to some of the criticism of this play, too. Schoenbaum, unlike some other critics, found the contradictions between the Chorus that glorified Henry and the actions of the king in the play to be inviting.

In such contraries does criticism rejoice, and by admitting subversive countercurrents, Shakespeare invites liberty of interpretation. Each reader and viewer must decide for himself [sic] whether the hero is an exemplary Christian prince or a self-righteous imperialist, or some combination of both, and his play a sublime testimonial to national purpose or an exercise in wonderfully eloquent but essentially meretricious jingoism—or any of the innumerable gradations between these polarities.

Maurice Charney, writing in his All of Shakespeare, states that "the emphasis in this final play of the Major Tetralogy is on the heroic celebration of Henry as the ideal English king." Charney found much to enjoy in this play; but one particular part was the soliloquy that Henry delivers in act 4, scene 1, on kingship. "There is no speech on kingship in Shakespeare more glorious than this one," Charney writes.


Anne Crow

In this essay, Crow examines how Shakespeare uses language to illuminate the title character in Henry V. In scenes when he is acting in an official capacity, the King uses blank verse; when talking informally to his soldiers or trying to woo Katherine, in contrast, he speaks in conventional prose. Through the alternating use of these different forms of language, the critic contends, Shakespeare offers a full-blooded portrait of a man beset by doubts but rising above them to do his duty as monarch.

Blank verse is a very versatile medium. It can sound majestic and formal, or spontaneous and colloquial. The speed can be varied by judicious choice of words and the introduction of pauses, and the basic rhythm is just asking to be tampered with to make it more interesting. Regular blank verse moves at a steady walking pace, alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. There are five iambic feet to a line, and this means it starts, usually, with an unstressed syllable:


Now all the youth of England are on fire

Because the movement of the verse is so simple and easy, Shakespeare can introduce any number of variations to suggest the state of mind of the speaker.

In [Henry V], Shakespeare uses a Chorus to introduce each act and close the play. The effect is that of a storyteller delivering an epic poem about a home-grown hero, a king who confounds early expectations to restore England's fortunes and lead a miraculous victory against the French. The style of the Chorus's poetry is elevated, as befits his lofty theme.

The Chorus actually opens the play with a lingering stress on 'O' to invoke excitement and anticipation in the audience: 'O for a muse of fire'. His lines often start with a stressed syllable as he encourages us to use our imaginations, as in the speech opening Act III where he describes the English fleet setting sail for France. Several lines start with urgent commands, 'Play', 'Hear', 'Grapple', 'Work', as he tries to compensate for the inadequacies of the theatre. The Chorus projects a heroic and majestic image of Henry at all times, comparing him with the Roman god of war, Mars, and the military hero, Caesar. Nevertheless, he sometimes refers to him as 'Harry', because an important aspect of Henry's image is that he is the people's king, loved by them for his willingness to put ceremony aside and fight alongside them, to mingle with them before the battle and to share a joke with them.

In between each Chorus, Shakespeare gives his audience glimpses of the man behind the myth, and it is significant that when Henry is cultivating his image as a soldier, one of a 'band of brothers', Shakespeare makes him speak in prose, like the ordinary characters in the play. A prose style forms part of his disguise when, in disguise, he mingles with his men the night before the Battle of Agincourt, and when he chats easily to Llewellyn after the battle, setting up his practical joke with Williams's glove. He also very quickly drops into prose as he tries to woo Katherine, adopting the pose of a gauche soldier, laughing at himself, embarrassed and lost for words. It seems to be a more intimate way of speaking than the poetry which is appropriate when he is on his dignity as a king rather than a man.

His one soliloquy (IV.i.227-81) is a particularly appropriate speech to show how the structure of the poetry helps the actor to portray Henry's real fears and doubts, which he keeps masked whenever there is anyone with him, and which the Chorus never mentions. Near the beginning of this speech he asks eight questions, all beginning with 'What'. Several lines are shorter than the usual ten syllables, making the actor pause, as if to think about the answers to the questions which are all asking what advantage he has as king over his subjects, what the 'ceremony' is really worth. When he answers his long list, ten negatives help to build up the tension as he concludes that none of the symbols that represent royalty can enable the king to sleep as soundly as the most wretched of his subjects. He then summarises his argument so far with more emphatic negatives, 'No, not all these, thrice gorgeous ceremony, / Not all these…'. As he moves on from lamenting the insubstantial nature of a king's advantages to expressing envy of 'the wretched slave', his subject, Shakespeare gives Henry one long, complex sentence with no repetition, in which to describe in positive terms the apparently idyllic life of the peasant. So caught up is Henry in his self-pity that he fails to see the irony in his words at the end of the speech, describing 'what watch the king keeps to maintain the peace', when, in fact, he has led his people into war and put his army in a position where it must fight a battle heavily outnumbered, five to one.

This speech most clearly reveals the conflict in a king's role, what the Elizabethans called the king's two bodies: he is both a public figure and a private man. A good king will suppress his private feelings in front of others, acting out whatever role he needs to play. Here, however, Shakespeare shows us a man under stress, and this is very important to the way Henry is presented; the audience can see for themselves that, as he tells the soldiers, 'I think the king is but a man as I am' (IV.i.102). He chooses an interesting image to illustrate his essential humanity: 'The violet smells to him as it doth to me'. A violet is a shy, secretive flower, hiding under its leaves in dark, wooded places, not at all like the showy rose, which is the usual emblem of kings. However, it is in the prayer which follows the soliloquy that we learn how vulnerable he feels, begging God not to remember how his father usurped the throne from his cousin, Richard: 'Not today, O Lord, / O not today, think not upon the fault…'. The repetition and the multiple breaks in the line help to reveal his troubled conscience, as he lists everything he has done to try to atone for this crime and promises to do more, though a note of despair creeps in at the end, as he acknowledges that it is too late, because the sin has been committed and all he can do is implore pardon (IV.i.286-302).

When he rejoins his army, however, all doubts and fears are masked behind the persona of a calmly confident monarch. There is no hint of the bitterness and panic of the previous night, as he evokes a golden future for the survivors of the battle, who will be honoured as heroes for the rest of their lives. In a magnanimous confidence trick, he declares:


Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host

that anyone who does not want to fight will be given more money and allowed to leave (this may sound like a generous offer, but they are in the middle of enemy territory). By placing 'Rather' at the beginning of the line so that it alters the expected stress pattern, Shakespeare subtly heightens the contrast of the confidence of Henry's gesture with the fear which prompted Westmoreland's wish for more soldiers.

In this speech Henry glosses over the brutality of war, because he does not want to frighten his men before the battle. The only mention of wounds is a brief reference to the scars on his arm that a theoretical soldier will show his friends in future years. This is in sharp contrast to the violent and bloody speech in Act III Scene iv with which he frightens the men of Harfleur into surrendering. There, because his men were tired, sick and unwilling to fight, he had to pretend that they were brutal killers. This is a carefully prepared speech, composed in regular iambic pentameters, which suggests control or even lack of emotion. Shakespeare seems to suggest that Henry is not enjoying the prospect of 'naked infants spitted upon pikes' or 'heads dashed to the walls', but nor is he disturbed by it. This impression is reinforced by the calm composure he shows as the governor submits, and the English army wins its first battle on French soil. There is no gloating, no triumph, just the realisation that 'winter is coming' and 'sickness growing upon our soldiers', and the gentle command 'use mercy to them all' in the town. Shakespeare presents Henry as a king who can be whatever is needed in any situation, threatening or merciful, whichever is appropriate.

There are times, however, when his private feelings seem to break through his composure. His answer to the Dauphin's insulting gift of tennis balls in Act I Scene ii is polite and witty. His first reaction to the 'tun of treasure' is expressed using the royal 'we'. His threat is at first disguised in an elaborate metaphor comparing the coming war with a game of tennis. Tongue firmly in cheek, he thanks the ambassador for the gift and seems to take pleasure in turning the insult back on the Dauphin, revealing a quick wit but with very sinister undertones, 'We will in France, by God's grace, play a set / Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard'. He says that he understands why the Dauphin underestimates him because of the 'wilder days' of his youth, but warns that he is 'not measuring what use we made of them'—a reminder to the audience that even while he seemed to be profligate in his youth, a soliloquy at the beginning of Henry IV, Part I reveals that he was already calculating the effect of his actions.

Shakespeare now presents Henry as beginning to lose control of his temper and show how much the Dauphin's gibe has upset him as he stops using the formal plural pronoun 'we' and lapses into the personal 'I will keep my state'. He effectively uses imagery to project a mighty show of strength, declaring that he will 'show my sail of greatness / When I do rouse in my throne of France'. The sails of his ships crossing the channel, and his army's flags and banners will announce his right to the kingdom of France, and significantly this is the first time that Henry has explicitly stated to the French that total domination of France is the aim, rather than just claiming back dukedoms that had previously belonged to England. Once again he compares himself to the sun, but, whereas in Henry IV, Part I he intended to appear brighter because of the contrast with his misspent youth (the clouds), here he turns the image into a threat: as he rises in France, the Dauphin will be struck 'blind to look on us'. He reverts to the royal 'we' as he gets his anger back under control to build up to a climactic rhyming couplet in which he warns of the consequences of 'the Dauphin's scorn'. He implies that it is the latter which has persuaded him to go to war and turns the blame for the invasion, which had in fact already been planned, onto the Dauphin: 'his soul / Shall stand sore-charged for the wasteful vengeance'. Shakespeare's choice of words allows the actor to spit out his challenge and contempt with extra stressed syllables and the plosive final consonant of the four times repeated 'mock'.

Nevertheless, we cannot be sure that Shakespeare intended this scene to give insight into Henry's vulnerability. Since he has an audience, it may be a clever piece of play-acting. He may pretend to be hurt and offended so that he can shift the blame for his invasion of France onto the Dauphin. Because of his father's usurpation of the throne, Henry feels insecure, and so Shakespeare shows him shifting the blame from his own shoulders onto others at every opportunity.

The Chorus persuasively narrates the myth of Henry as 'the mirror of all Christian kings', the 'conquering Caesar' who modestly attributes his apparently miraculous achievement to God, the caring leader who boosted the morale of his troops with 'A little touch of Harry in the night'. However, the scenes in between the Chorus's eulogies raise doubts. Instead of spreading 'A largess universal like the sun', Shakespeare shows Henry in disguise, spying on his soldiers because he lacks confidence in their loyalty. When he abandons his former friends, breaking Falstaff's heart and sending Bardolph and Scroop to be executed, the audience is left with a feeling that, although his actions are politically expedient, a hint of private grief and remorse would have made him a more likeable hero. Shakespeare has presented us with a king who is a consummate actor and stage manager, a master of the spin doctor's art. However, as with all spin doctors, while we may admire the skill and rhetoric, we rarely sympathise with him; kingship is a lonely office.

Source: Anne Crow, "Henry V Man and Myth: Anne Crow Shows How Shakespeare's Use of Poetry in Henry V Can Illuminate Our Understanding of the Character of the King," in The English Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, November 2002, pp. 31-34.

D. A. Traversi

In the following excerpt from an essay first published in 1956, Traversi observes Henry's moral and political conflict between self-control and passion. He contends that as king, Henry must possess a complete devotion to his position and cannot allow selfishness to affect his decisions. Traversi argues that Henry V provides the link between political unity and personal order in England. He also traces Henry's struggle throughout the play with personal control and order.

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Source: D. A. Traversi, "Henry IV—Parts I and II, and Henry V," in An Approach to Shakespeare, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1969, pp. 191-258.

Mark Van Doren

In the following excerpt, Van Doren criticizes the lack of unity in Henry V, stating that the spectacle of the play does not compensate for the inadequate dramatic matter. He condemns Shakespeare's use of the chorus, the inflated style, the sentimental appeal to patriotism, and the weak humor in the play. Van Doren also asserts that Shakespeare fails to establish a relation between Henry's actions and his experiences.

Shakespeare in Henry IV had still been able to pour all of his thought and feeling into the heroic drama without demolishing its form. His respect for English history as a subject, his tendency to conceive kings in tragic terms, his interest in exalted dialogue as a medium through which important actions could be advanced—these, corrected by comedy which flooded the whole with the wisdom of a warm and proper light, may have reached their natural limit, but that limit was not transgressed. Henry IV, in other words, both was and is a successful play; it answers the questions it raises, it satisfies every instinct of the spectator, it is remembered as fabulously rich and at the same time simply ordered. Henry V is no such play. It has its splendors and its secondary attractions, but the forces in it are not unified. The reason probably is that for Shakespeare they had ceased to be genuine forces. He marshals for his task a host of substitute powers, but the effect is often hollow. The style strains itself to bursting, the hero is stretched until he struts on tiptoe and is still strutting at the last insignificant exit, and war is emptied of its tragic content. The form of the historical drama had been the tragic form; its dress is borrowed here, but only borrowed. The heroic idea splinters into a thousand starry fragments, fine as fragments but lighted from no single source.

Everywhere efforts are made to be striking, and they succeed. But the success is local. Henry V does not succeed as a whole because its author lacks adequate dramatic matter; or because, veering so suddenly away from tragedy, he is unable to free himself from the accidents of its form; or because, with Julius Caesar and Hamlet on his horizon, he finds himself less interested than before in heroes who are men of action and yet is not at the moment provided with a dramatic language for saying so. Whatever the cause, we discover that we are being entertained from the top of his mind. There is much there to glitter and please us, but what pleases us has less body than what once did so and soon will do so with still greater abundance again.

The prologues are the first sign of Shakespeare's imperfect dramatic faith. Their verse is wonderful but it has to be, for it is doing the work which the play ought to be doing, it is a substitute for scene and action. "O for a Muse of fire," the poet's apology begins. The prologues are everywhere apologetic; they are saying that no stage, this one or any other, is big enough or wealthy enough to present the "huge and proper life" of Henry's wars; this cockpit cannot hold the vasty fields of France, there will be no veritable horses in any scene, the ship-boys on the masts and the camp-fires at Agincourt will simply have to be imagined. Which it is the business of the play to make them be, as Shakespeare has known and will know again. The author of Romeo and Juliet had not been sorry because his stage was a piece of London rather than the whole of Verona, and the storm in King Lear will begin without benefit of description. The description here is always very fine, as for example at the opening of the fourth act:

    Now entertain conjecture of a time
    When creeping murmur and the poring dark
    Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
    From camp to camp through the foul womb of night
    The hum of either army stilly sounds,
    That the fix'd sentinels almost receive
    The secret whispers of each other's watch;
    Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
    Each battle sees the other's umber'd face;
    Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
    Piercing the night's dull ear; and from the tents
    The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
    With busy hammers closing rivets up,
    Give dreadful note of preparation.

But it is still description, and it is being asked to do what description can never do—turn spectacle into plot, tableau into tragedy.

The second sign of genius at loose ends is a radical and indeed an astounding inflation in the style. Passages of boasting and exhortation are in place, but even the best of them, whether from the French or from the English side, have a forced, shrill, windy sound, as if their author were pumping his muse for dear life in the hope that mere speed and plangency might take the place of matter. For a few lines like

    Familiar in his mouth as household words
    (IV, iii, 52)
    The singing masons building roofs of gold
    (I, ii, 198)
    I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
    Straining upon the start
    (III, i, 31-2)
    there are hundreds like
    The native mightiness and fate of him
    (II, iv, 64)
    With ample and brim fullness of his force
    (I, ii, 150)
    That caves and womby vaultages of France
    Shall chide your trespass and return your mock.
    (II, iv, 124-5)

Mightiness and fate, ample and brim, caves and vaultages, trespass and mock—such couplings attest the poet's desperation, the rhetorician's extremity. They spring up everywhere, like birds from undergrowth: sweet and honey'd, open haunts and popularity, thrive and ripen, crown and seat, right and title, right and conscience, kings and monarchs, means and might, aim and butt, large and ample, taken and impounded, frank and uncurbed, success and conquest, desert and merit, weight and worthiness, duty and zeal, savage and inhuman, botch and bungle, garnish'd and deck'd, assembled and collected, sinister and awkward, culled and choice-drawn, o'erhang and jutty, waste and desolation, cool and temperate, flexure and low bending, signal and ostent, vainness and self-glorious pride. Shakespeare has perpetrated them before, as when in Henry VI he coupled ominous and fearful, trouble and disturb, substance and authority, and absurd and reasonless. But never has he perpetrated them with such thoughtless frequency. Nor has he at this point developed the compound epithet into that interesting mannerism—the only mannerism he ever submitted to—which is to be so noticeable in his next half-dozen plays, including Hamlet. The device he is to use will involve more than the pairing of adjectives or nouns; one part of speech will assume the duties of another, and a certain very sudden concentration of meaning will result. There is, to be sure, one approximation to the device in Henry V—"the quick forge and working-house of thought" (Prologue, v, 23) …

The third sign is a direct and puerile [juvenile] appeal to the patriotism of the audience, a dependence upon sentiments outside the play that can be counted on, once they are tapped, to pour in and repair the deficiencies of the action. Unable to achieve a dramatic unity out of the materials before him, Shakespeare must grow lyrical about the unity of England; politics must substitute for poetry. He cannot take England for granted as the scene of conflicts whose greatness will imply its greatness. It must be great itself, and the play says so—unconvincingly. There are no conflicts. The traitors Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey are happy to lose their heads for England (II, ii), and the battles in France, even though the enemy's host is huge and starvation takes its toll, are bound to be won by such fine English fellows as we have here. If the French have boasted beforehand, the irony of their doing so was obvious from the start. But it was patriotism, shared as a secret between the author and his audience, that made it obvious. It was not drama.

And a fourth sign is the note of gaiety that takes the place here of high passion. The treasure sent to Henry by the Dauphin is discovered at the end of the first act to be tennis-balls: an insult which the young king returns in a speech about matching rackets and playing sets—his idiom for bloody war. When the treachery of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey is detected on the eve of his departure for France he stages their discomfiture somewhat as games are undertaken, and with a certain sporting relish watches their faces as they read their dooms. The conversation of the French leaders as they wait for the sun to rise on Agincourt is nervous as thoroughbreds are nervous, or champion athletes impatient for a tournament to commerce; their camp is a locker room, littered with attitudes no less than uniforms (III, vii). The deaths of York and Suffolk the next day are images of how young knights should die. They kiss each other's gashes, wearing their red blood like roses in the field, and spending their last breath in terms so fine that Exeter, reporting to the King, is overcome by "the pretty and sweet manner of it" (IV, vi, 28). And of course there are the scenes where Katharine makes fritters of English, waiting to be wooed (III, iv) and wooed at last (V, ii) by Henry Plantagenet, "king of good fellows." "The truth is," said Dr. Johnson, "that the poet's matter failed him in the fifth act, and he was glad to fill it up with whatever he could get; and not even Shakespeare can write well without a proper subject. It is a vain endeavour for the most skilful hand to cultivate barrenness, or to paint upon vacuity." That is harsh, but its essence cannot be ignored. The high spirits in which the scenes are written have their attraction, but they are no substitute for intensity.

Nor do they give us the king we thought we had. "I speak to thee plain soldier," boasts Henry in homespun vein. "I am glad thou canst speak no better English; for, if thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain king that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown. I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say, 'I love you.'… These fellows of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves into ladies' favours, they do always reason themselves out again … By mine honour, in true English, I love thee, Kate" (V, ii) …

Shakespeare has forgotten the glittering young god whom Vernon described in Henry IV—plumed like an estridge or like an eagle lately bathed, shining like an image in his golden coat, as full of spirit as the month of May, wanton as a youthful goat, a feathered Mercury, an angel dropped down from the clouds. The figure whom he has groomed to be the ideal English king, all plumes and smiles and decorated courage, collapses here into a mere good fellow, a hearty undergraduate with enormous initials on his chest. The reason must be that Shakespeare has little interest in the ideal English king. He has done what rhetoric could do to give us a young heart whole in honor, but his imagination has already sped forward to Brutus and Hamlet: to a kind of hero who is no less honorable than Henry but who will tread on thorns as he takes the path of duty—itself unclear, and crossed by other paths of no man's making. Henry is Shakespeare's last attempt at the great man who is also simple. Henceforth he will show greatness as either perplexing or perplexed; and Hamlet will be both.

Meanwhile his imagination undermines the very eminence on which Henry struts. For the King and his nobles the war may be a handsome game, but an undercurrent of realism reminds us of the "poor souls" for whom it is no such thing. We hear of widows' tears and orphans' cries, of dead men's blood and pining maidens' groans (II, iv, 104-7). Such horrors had been touched on in earlier Histories; now they are given a scene to themselves (IV, i). While the French leaders chaff one another through the night before Agincourt the English common soldiers have their hour. Men with names as plain as John Bates and Micheal Williams walk up and down the dark field thinking of legs and arms and heads chopped off in battle, of faint cries for surgeons, of men in misery because of their children who will be rawly left. Henry, moving among them in the disguise of clothes like theirs, asks them to remember that the King's cause is just and his quarrel honorable. "That's more than we know," comes back the disturbing cool voice of Michael Williams. Henry answers with much fair prose, and the episode ends with a wager—sportsmanship again—which in turn leads to an amusing recognition scene (IV, viii). But the honest voice of Williams still has the edge on Henry's patronizing tone:

Williams. Your Majesty came not like yourself. You appear'd to me but as a common man; witness the night, your garments, your lowliness; and what your Highness suffer'd under that shape, I beseech you take it for your own fault and not mine …

     King Henry. Here, uncle Exeter, fill this glove with crowns,
     And give it to this fellow. Keep it, fellow;
     And wear it for an honour in thy cap
     Till I do challenge it.
     (IV, viii, 53-64)

Henry has not learned that Williams knows. He is still the plumed king, prancing on oratory and waving wagers as he goes. That he finally has no place to go is the result of Shakespeare's failure to establish any relation between a hero and his experience. Henry has not absorbed the vision either of Williams or of Shakespeare. This shrinks him in his armor, and it leaves the vision hanging.

The humor of the play, rich as it sometimes is, suffers likewise from a lack of vital function. The celebrated scene (II, iii) in which the Hostess describes Falstaff's death shuts the door forever on Henry IV and its gigantic comedy. Pistol and Bardolph continue in their respective styles, and continue cleverly; the first scene of the second act, which finds them still in London, may be indeed the best one ever written for them—and for Nym in his pompous brevity.

I cannot tell. Things must be as they may. Men may sleep, and they may have their throats about them at the time; and some say knives have edges. It must be as it may.

Pistol was never excited to funnier effect.

     O hound of Crete, think'st thou my spouse to get?
     No! to the spital go,
     And from the powdering-tub of infamy
     Fetch forth the lazar kite of Cressid's kind,
     Doll Tearsheet she by name, and her espouse.
     I have, and I will hold, the quondam Quickly
     For the only she; and—pauca, there's enough. Go to.

Yet this leads on to little in France beyond a series of rather mechanically arranged encounters in which the high talk of heroes is echoed by the rough cries of rascals. "To the breach, to the breach!" yells Bardolph after Henry, and that is parody. But Henry has already parodied himself; the device is not needed, any more than the rascals are. Shakespeare seems to admit as much when he permits lectures to be delivered against their moral characters, first by the boy who serves them (III, ii, 28-57) and next by the sober Gower (III, vi, 70-85), and when he arranges bad ends for them as thieves, cutpurses, and bawds.

There is a clearer function for Fluellen, the fussy Welsh pedant who is for fighting wars out of books. Always fretting and out of breath, he mourns "the disciplines of the wars," the pristine wars of the Romans, now in these latter days lost with all other learning. There was not this tiddle taddle and pibble pabble in Pompey's camp. The law of arms was once well known, and men—strong, silent men such as he fancies himself to be—observed it without prawls and prabbles. He has no shrewdness; he mistakes Pistol for a brave man because he talks bravely, and there is his classic comparison of Henry with Alexander because one lived in Monmouth and the other in Macedon and each city had a river and there were salmons in both. He has only his schoolmaster's eloquence; it breaks out on him like a rash, and is the one style here that surpasses the King's in fullness.

Fluellen. It is not well done, mark you now, to take the tales out of my mouth, ere it is made and finished. I speak but in the figures and comparisons of it. As Alexander kill'd his friend Cleitus, being in his ales and his cups; so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgements, turn'd away the fat knight with the great belly doublet. He was full of jests, and gipes, and knaveries, and mocks; I have forgot his name.

Gower. Sir John Falstaff.

Fluellen. That is he.

(IV, vii, 43-55)

Fluellen reminds us of Falstaff. That is a function, but he has another. It is to let the war theme finally down. Agincourt is won not only by a tennis-player but by a school-teacher. Saint Crispin's day is to be remembered as much in the pibble pabble of a pedant as in the golden throatings of a hollow god. Fluellen is one of Shakespeare's most humorous men, and one of his best used.

Source: Mark Van Doren, "Henry V," in Shakespeare, Henry Holt and Company, 1939, pp. 170-79.


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This is a scholarly study of the English monarch, detailed, and well researched.

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Some of the top critics of the twentieth century offer their views on Shakespeare's play.

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This is the place to read about the monarchs in Europe, the power of the church, the wars, and the customs of the people during the Middle Ages.

Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, Harper Perennial, 1989.

Have you ever wondered what life would be like in the Middle Ages? These authors have put together a glimpse into the ordinary lives of citizens of the Middle Ages.

Hibbert, Christopher, Agincourt, Cooper Square Press, 2000.

A concise history of the short battle that profoundly affected England and France.

Seward, Desmond, The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337–1453, Penguin, 2003.

A study of the central issues of dispute and the resulting wars between France and England as the two countries fought for control of the French crown.

Shapiro, James, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, Harper Perennial, 2006.

The author offers a different take on the biography of Shakespeare by telling the reader what was happening around Shakespeare while he was writing some of his plays, including Henry V.

Henry V

views updated May 21 2018

Henry V



The play Henry V by the great Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare was first performed in London, England in 1599. It may have been the first play performed at the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames River. The play tells the story of one of the most popular English kings, Henry V (1387–1422, reigning 1413–1422), and it was probably a spectacular opening production for the new theater. It featured two battle scenes, a plot against the king's life, several scenes of bawdy comedy, stirring patriotic speeches, and even a witty courtship in the last act. The battles would have been thrilling to the audience, as drum rolls and trumpet blasts evoked an army on the advance, and cannons firing backstage evoked the sound and smell of battle. During the siege of the French city of Harfleur in Act 3, ladders were placed against a gallery at the back of the stage to resemble the walls of the actual besieged city.

Shakespeare's career as a playwright had begun ten years before, with a tetralogy, or series of four plays, about the English kings Henry VI (the son of Henry V) and Richard III. In 1595, he began a new tetralogy that followed the struggle over the English monarchy and Henry IV's eventual overthrow of Richard II, perhaps by murdering him. At the time Shakespeare was writing, England was enjoying a long period of domestic peace under a popular monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, who had ruled since 1558. The plays, however, depicted a troubled time nearly two centuries before, when unscrupulous ambition and violence nearly always accompanied the transfer of monarchical power. These stories held more than historical interest for their audience. Elizabeth was sixty-six years old in 1599; she had no spouse or children, and thus had no heir. Shakespeare's audience could not help but wonder if the same sort of turmoil was in their future.

Henry V was the fourth play in the tetralogy. It continued the story set out in the first three plays, but it was also a departure from them. Richard II was a serious political drama, and the two parts of Henry IV featured the antics of Henry's irresponsible son Prince Hal, who spent much of his time making mischief with a group of petty thieves and drunkards led by one of Shakespeare's most popular characters, Sir John Falstaff. The scenes with Hal and Falstaff and the secondary characters Bardolph, Pistol, and Mistress Quickly were wildly popular, and there is some reason to believe that Shakespeare wrote the second part of Henry IV to cash in on the success of the comic scenes in the first part.

By the end of part two, circumstances have forced maturity on Prince Hal. He had led men into battle in defense of his father's crown, and at the end of the play, upon his father's death, he inherited the crown himself. One of his first acts as King Henry V was to renounce his old playmate Falstaff forever, which broke the old man's heart. As the first audience for Henry V was to discover, the giddy Prince Hal of Henry IV had grown into a forceful, eloquent, and decisive leader. And unlike the first three plays of the tetralogy, which are about court intrigue and bloody civil war, the fourth play shows England united (with a few exceptions) behind a charismatic leader in an ambitious foreign war, even if the justification for that war is a little unclear.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, the first surviving child of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, was baptized on April 26, 1564, in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire, England. Eighteen years later, he was granted a license on November 27, 1582, to marry Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. Their first child, Susanna, was born six months later, and two years later twins, a boy and a girl, were born. Shakespeare eventually moved to London (without his family) and became a well-known actor. He appears in the cast list of a play by Ben Jonson and is listed as a founder of an acting company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

His first plays were probably the three parts of Henry VI, written between 1589 and 1591. In this history tetralogy and the one that follows, Shakespeare's fascination with war, both civil and foreign, is evident. In the next twenty-two years, he wrote or collaborated on nearly forty plays. Many of them include wars or battle scenes, including Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, and Othello. He is also famous for his 154 sonnets, poems that consist of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, a style he invented. He retired to Stratford near the end of his life and died in April 1616, at the age of fifty-two.

Henry is portrayed as a complex and sometimes brutal man, willing to sacrifice many lives, even those of his friends, for a controversial cause. Although Henry V is not considered one of Shakespeare's great plays (Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth would follow in the next six years), it remains one of his most popular, whether produced as a patriotic spectacle or as a subtle examination of moral ambiguity and the savage realities of war.



In the Prologue to Henry V, the Chorus, which narrates the play, introduces it by asking the audience to believe that a few actors ("the flat unraiseèd spirits") and a simple stage ("this unworthy scaffold") can represent a king's army and the battlefields of France. The Chorus asks the audience to imagine that each actor represents a thousand men and to use its thoughts to "deck," or dress, the king.

Act 1, Scene 1

At the king's court in London, two English Catholic Church officials, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, discuss a proposed law that would allow the crown to confiscate church property. They are not particularly worried, however. Henry had a wild, irresponsible youth (chronicled in Henry IV, parts one and two), but since his father, King Henry IV's death, he has grown into a serious and thoughtful ruler. He is also, says Ely, a "true lover of the holy Church." To ensure the king's support, Canterbury says he offered Henry a large financial contribution for his military campaign to win the crown of France. He also tells how he began to encourage Henry's claim to the French crown, but he was interrupted by the arrival of the French ambassador.

Act 1, Scene 2

King Henry comes looking for Canterbury, attended by several lords, or noblemen—the dukes of Gloucester, Bedford, Clarence, Warwick, Westmorland, and Exeter. Henry asks the archbishop to explain the Salic Law of France, which forbids inheriting the French crown from a female ancestor. The archbishop launches into a lengthy and complex explanation of why Henry's claim is just, even though his French ancestor is Queen Isabella. The archbishop and several of the lords tell Henry that should he adopt the warlike spirit of his ancestors, the people will support his claim. Henry worries that the Scots will invade England if he invades France, just as they did when his grandfather, Edward III, fought in France. The others tell him that he will have to divide his forces. Several of the lords leave, and Henry calls for the ambassador of France, who tells the king that the Dauphin (the son of the French king) wishes to inform Henry that conquering France will not be easy. The Dauphin has sent Henry a gift, but it turns out to be an insult—a crate of tennis balls—a sly reference to Henry's reputation as a wild youth, implying he is not serious enough to carry out an invasion of France. Henry sends the ambassador back to the Dauphin with the message that he will turn the tennis balls into cannonballs, and Henry tells his lords to prepare for an immediate invasion of France.

Act 2, Prologue

The Chorus sets the scene, describing how the English prepare for war and how the French try to avert it by mobilizing a plot to kill Henry. They have bribed three English lords—the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey—to kill the king before the English forces leave for France from the port of Southampton. The Chorus again asks the audience to use their imaginations to cover the distance from London to Southampton.

Act 2, Scene 1

Despite the Chorus's introduction, however, the first scene of Act 2 is set in London with several of Henry's friends from his youth, characters that appeared in Henry IV, when Henry was known as Prince Hal. Bardolph and Nym, comic rogues, meet in the street; Bardolph wonders if Nym is still friends with Pistol, who has recently married Mistress Quickly, a character who also appeared in the earlier play. Mistress Quickly was engaged to Nym but married Pistol instead. When Pistol and Mistress Quickly meet Nym and Bardolph in the street, Nym and Pistol draw their swords and threaten to kill each other. As Mistress Quickly and Bardolph try to stop the duel, the Boy enters. The Boy is the servant of Sir John Falstaff, a character who does not appear in this play but who was young Prince Hal's most important and most disreputable friend in Henry IV. After Hal became King Henry V, he told the old man he never wanted to see him again. The Boy announces that because of Henry's rejection, Falstaff lies dying of a broken heart. Pistol and Nym agree to be friends again, especially if Pistol pays Nym some money he owes him, and they all go to see the dying Falstaff.

Act 2, Scene 2

In the port of Southampton, the dukes of Exeter, Bedford, and Westmorland enter, discussing the conspiracy against Henry. They know that the king knows of the plot, but so far, he has pretended not to, keeping the three conspirators—Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey—close to him. Now, as Henry and the three conspirators enter, Henry asks them what they would do with an unnamed man who insulted him yesterday. The king is inclined to pardon the man, because he was drunk, but the three conspirators urge Henry to be unmerciful. At this point, Henry reveals that he knows about the conspiracy, and Grey and Scroop beg for his pardon. Henry uses their argument against mercy for traitors against them and berates them for ingratitude and disloyalty. Only Cambridge defends himself, saying that he was not tempted by the French gold (the play does not give his reason, but historically, Cambridge believed that his brother-in-law, the Earl of March, should have been king rather than Henry). Henry sentences them to death and sends them away, then he tells his loyal lords to board ship for France.

Act 2, Scene 3

Back in London, Falstaff has died, and his friends Bardolph, Nym, Pistol, and Mistress Quickly mourn him. They recall his last words, though they cannot agree exactly on what he said. Then Bardolph reminds them that they must leave for Southampton, to join the king's campaign against France, where Bardolph hopes to do well by looting. Pistol and Bardolph kiss Mistress Quickly goodbye, but Nym does not.

Act 2, Scene 4

At the royal court in France, the French king Charles VI, his son the Dauphin, and several French lords debate how dangerous Henry is. The king orders his lords and the Dauphin to prepare the country for war. The Dauphin agrees, though he says Henry is a frivolous king and no real threat. One of the lords, the Constable, protests that Henry's frivolity is only a trick to fool his enemies, and the French king points out that Henry is descended from the same line as Edward III and Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, who defeated the French at Creécy in 1346. The Duke of Exeter, Henry's emissary, enters and demands that the French king recognize Henry's claim to the French throne. If he does not, the French people's suffering will be Charles's responsibility. The Dauphin demands to know if there is any message from Henry for him. Exeter says there is a message, "scorn and defiance, slight regard, contempt," and he promises that the Dauphin will come to regret his insulting gift of tennis balls. He further promises that France will soon understand the difference between the younger Henry and Henry the king. The French king promises an answer tomorrow, and Exeter tells him he had better hurry, because Henry and his army are already in France.

Act 3, Prologue

Once again the Chorus sets the scene, asking the audience to imagine Henry's ships departing for France. The audience also learns that, as a counter offer to forestall the invasion, the French king has offered Henry his daughter Katherine in marriage and some insignificant dukedom as her dowry. It is not nearly enough, and Henry lays siege to the French town of Harfleur.

Act 3, Scene 1

At the height of the battle for Harfleur, Henry urges his men on. In peacetime, he says, "nothing so becomes a man / As modest stillness and humility," but in wartime, he must be like a tiger, full of rage. He urges his men to fight to honor their fathers, who won earlier battles in France, and not to dishonor their mothers. He exhorts the men to show their breeding and fight in the name of Henry, England, and Saint George, the patron saint of England.

Act 3, Scene 2

As the battle of Harfleur continues, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol are reluctant to advance against the French. They say they would much rather be back in England drinking, but they are driven forward by Captain Fluellen. Before he follows them, the Boy notes that all three together are not as much of a man as he is, for Bardolph is a coward, Pistol is a blowhard, and Nym has never hurt anybody but himself. Furthermore, they are using the war as an excuse to loot, and the Boy is disgusted by it. Meanwhile, several officers of the English army—Fluellen, who is Welsh; Jamy, who is Scottish; and Macmorris, who is Irish—bicker with each other in their unique national accents over who is the best, most knowledgeable, and most disciplined soldier. They are about to come to blows when the besieged town announces that it wants to parley with the English army.

Act 3, Scene 3

Before the walls of Harfleur, Henry gives the Governor of the town one last chance to surrender. If he does not, Henry threatens to reduce his city to ashes and turn England's soldiers loose, letting them rape the city's young women and slaughter its old men and children. Henry tells the Governor to surrender now, while Henry can still control his men, or else the Governor will be responsible for the consequences. The Governor surrenders and asks for mercy. Henry sends his men through the gates and tells Exeter to fortify the city and to be merciful to its inhabitants. Meanwhile, Henry will withdraw the rest of his exhausted army to the port of Calais.

Act 3, Scene 4

This scene, set at the French court in Rouen, is performed almost entirely in French. In it, the princess Katherine, who was offered to Henry in marriage, asks her elderly lady-in-waiting, Alice, to teach her some English words. Alice teaches her the English words for "hand," "fingers," "fingernails," "elbow," "chin," and others, most of which Katherine mispronounces, sometimes with vulgar connotations.

Act 3, Scene 5

Also at the court in Rouen, the king and his noblemen are upset at Henry's success. The Dauphin asks if the French are worthy of their ancestors. The Duke of Brittany says that if the English cannot be driven back, he will sell his dukedom and buy a dirty farm in England. The Constable wonders how the English, who live in a foggy climate and boil their food, can be so brave against warm-blooded, wine-drinking Frenchmen. The Dauphin complains that Frenchmen's wives offer themselves to "the lust of English youth," mocking their husbands. The French king exhorts his lords to rise up and defeat Henry. The Constable says he is only sorry that Henry's army is so small and exhausted because they will probably give up without a fight. The king sends them off to fight Henry, but he asks the Dauphin to stay behind.

Act 3, Scene 6

At the English camp in northern France, Captain Gower receives a report from Captain Fluellen. The Duke of Exeter has successfully defended a bridge against a French assault. As they speak, Pistol enters. His friend Bardolph was caught stealing a crucifix from a French church, and Exeter has sentenced him to death for looting. Pistol hopes Fluellen will save Bardolph's life, but Fluellen says that discipline is so important to an army that he would allow his own brother to be executed for looting. Pistol curses him and exits. Gower calls Pistol a rascal, and Fluellen says Pistol spoke very bravely during the battle on the bridge. Gower replies that rogues like Pistol go to war only so they can brag about their exploits and that Fluellen should not be fooled by such talk. The king arrives and asks Fluellen about the battle at the bridge. Fluellen tells him it went well and then mentions Bardolph's predicament. Even though the king and Bardolph were once friends, he commands that the execution go forward, saying that the French population will be easier to manage if the English do not steal from them or abuse them. Montjoy, a French emissary, approaches the king and tells him that the French let him win at Harfleur, and that Henry is now too weak to defeat the French army. Henry tells him that he will darken the soil with French blood. As Montjoy leaves, the Duke of Gloucester says he hopes the French do not attack them now, but Henry orders the army forward.

Act 3, Scene 7

Late at night in the French army camp near the town of Agincourt, the Dauphin and several French nobles await the arrival of the English army. The Dauphin brags that in the coming battle, "my way shall be paved with English faces," and Lord Rambures wants to place a bet on how many English prisoners he will capture. When the Dauphin leaves to put on his armor, the noblemen talk about him behind his back. They say the only courage the Dauphin has ever shown was when he beat his servant. A messenger arrives to say that English lie within fifteen hundred paces of the French camp, and the French nobles say they feel sorry for Henry and his feeble army. By ten in the morning, says Lord Orleans, "we shall each have a hundred Englishmen."

Act 4, Prologue

Now the Chorus asks the audience to imagine the two enemy camps at night near Agincourt, close enough that each can hear sentinels exchanging passwords, the neighing of horses, and the hammer of metalsmiths preparing knight's armor for the coming battle. The overconfident French eagerly await the dawn, while the English wait patiently by their fires and think about the coming danger. Meanwhile the English king walks among his men so that they may take comfort from his confidence, providing all who encounter him with "a little touch of Harry in the night."

Act 4, Scene 1

In the English camp at Agincourt, Henry sends two of his lords to summon his officers to his tent, then borrows a cloak from an old knight, Sir Thomas Erpingham, so that he can walk among his men without being recognized. He is challenged by Pistol, and tells Pistol that he is a Welshman named Harry le Roy, which is a pun: le roi means "the king" in French. Next he overhears Captain Fluellen telling Captain Gower not to talk so loudly just because the French are making noise. As they pass out of sight, three common soldiers enter—John Bates, Alexander Court, and Michael Williams. Henry tells them he is an officer in Erpingham's company and then discusses with them what the king might be thinking tonight. Henry says he is content to be here, because the king's cause is honorable. Williams replies that if the cause is not good, then the king will be judged harshly for the many the men he led to death. Henry disagrees, claiming the king is not responsible for the deaths of particular soldiers, and besides, not all the soldiers going into battle are innocent. Some may be guilty of crimes, so their deaths will be just punishment for their sins. "Every / subject's duty is the King's," says Henry, "but every subject's soul is his own." Finally, Henry and Williams (who still does not know he is speaking to the king) agree to settle the argument with a fight after the battle, if they both live. They give each other a glove, so they will recognize one another after the battle. The soldiers leave.

Henry, alone now, considers the extra burdens that a king carries. Set apart from all other people by the ceremony of the crown and the flattery of his nobles, a king cannot have even a simple, restful night's sleep as the common peasant can; he must always be considering the safety and welfare of his subjects. Erpingham approaches and Henry asks him to assemble his nobles at his tent. Alone, he prays to the God of battles for strength in his soldier's hearts and asks God not to hold his father's crimes against him in the coming battle. (As told in Shakespeare's earlier plays, Richard II and Henry IV, parts one and two, Henry's father Henry IV took the crown from Richard II and then spent much of his reign fighting off other contenders for the crown.)

Act 4, Scene 2

At dawn in the French camp, the Dauphin and his lords are feeling cocky about the battle. A messenger tells them that the English army is arrayed for battle, and the Constable says they look ragged and starved, with scarcely enough blood to go around for French blades. Another lord makes fun of how hungry and weak the British look and asks what the Dauphin is waiting for. The Dauphin jokes about sending dinner to the English first and fighting them afterwards.

Act 4, Scene 3

In the English camp, the lords realize that the French outnumber them five to one, and they wish each other well. Westmorland wishes they had more men; in the play's most famous and most stirring speech, Henry says he would not wish for one more man, because fewer men will have more glory to share among them. Henry says that the men who fight on this day (the feast day of St. Crispin, October 25), will remember it for the rest of their lives and will share a closer bond with each other than with anyone who did not fight in the battle. Henry says that whoever sheds his blood with him today will be his brother. Montjoy, the French herald, arrives to tell Henry that the French will let his army go in peace if he will withdraw from the field. Henry refuses and orders his army forward.

Act 4, Scene 4

On the battlefield, Pistol threatens a terrified French soldier with his sword. The Boy translates for Pistol and the French soldier, and the soldier agrees to pay Pistol a large sum of money if Pistol will spare him. Pistol and the soldier leave, and the Boy goes off to join other boys in guarding the English army's luggage.

Act 4, Scene 5

On the battlefield, the Dauphin and the French lords are in despair because they are losing the battle. The Constable suggests they surrender, and Lord Orleans says they still outnumber the English, if only the French could organize their forces.

Act 4, Scene 6

Henry knows he has done well so far on the battlefield, but the French are still fighting. The Duke of Exeter tells Henry tearfully of the death of the Duke of Suffolk. Then Henry sees that the French are reinforcing their scattered forces, and he orders his men to kill the French prisoners.

Act 4, Scene 7

On the battlefield, Fluellen and Gower reveal that the enemy has killed all the boys who were sent to guard the army's luggage. The French have also burned Henry's tent and carried away his things; Gower assumes that this is why Henry ordered the French prisoners killed. Fluellen compares Henry with the ancient Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, comparing the way Alexander killed his friend Cleitus with the way Henry renounced Falstaff. The king enters, angry about the slaughter of the boys. He demands that the remaining French clear the battlefield and orders the execution of the remaining French prisoners. Montjoy arrives again, this time to concede that the French have lost the battle, and to ask Henry for permission to gather the French dead and wounded. Henry asks the name of the castle nearby, and Montjoy tells him that it is Agincourt. Fluellen reminds Henry of his great-uncle, Edward the Black Prince of Wales, and his victory in France.

Williams enters wearing the glove Henry gave him in Act 4, Scene 1 and, not realizing that the king is the man he argued with earlier, tells Henry he plans to fight the man with whom he exchanged gloves. Henry sends Williams away to find Captain Gower and then gives Williams's glove to Fluellen and tells him to wear it. He tells Fluellen he took the glove from the body of a French knight he killed named Alençon, and that if anybody challenges Fluellen because of the glove, Fluellen should capture him, because he is a friend of the enemy. Then he sends Fluellen to fetch Captain Gower, too. After Fluellen leaves, Henry asks Warwick and Gloucester to follow Williams and Fluellen and make sure they do not hurt each other.

Act 4, Scene 8

Near the English camp, Williams escorts Captain Gower to the king, telling Gower that he thinks the king intends to knight the captain. They come upon Fluellen, and recognizing his glove, Williams thinks this is the man he intended to fight, and he strikes Fluellen. Fluellen, remembering what Henry told him about the glove he wears, calls Williams a traitor. Gower comes to Williams's defense. Just then, Warwick and Gloucester arrive, followed immediately by the king and Exeter. Williams and Fluellen each make their case against the other, and Henry reveals that he was the man Williams threatened to strike. Williams says if he had known it was the king, he never would have offended him. Henry fills Williams's glove with coins and hands it back to him, pardoning him. He also orders Fluellen to make up with Williams. An English herald arrives with a tally of the losses on both sides. Fifteen hundred French soldiers have been captured and ten thousand Frenchman killed, while only twenty-nine Englishmen have died. Henry gives credit to God for the victory and announces his victorious return to England by way of the French port at Calais.

Act V, Prologue

The Chorus asks the audience to imagine Henry's victorious return to England and the celebratory atmosphere in London. The play then skips forward five years, to Henry's second military campaign in France in 1417.

Act V, Scene 1

At the English army's camp in France, Captain Gower asks Fluellen why he is wearing a leek (a kind of onion) in his cap, even though it is not St. David's Day. (On St. David's Day—March 1—Welshmen wear leeks in their caps in memory of the Welsh defeat of the Saxons.) Fluellen says he does it to taunt Pistol, who demanded that Fluellen eat the leek. Pistol enters, and Fluellen beats him and forces him to eat the leek. Gower tells Pistol it serves him right, and Pistol thinks sadly of the death of his love, Mistress Quickly, in England. He decides to return home, where he can pass off the scars from Fluellen's beating as war wounds from France.

Act V, Scene 2

At the French court, Henry and his lords enter by one door, as the French king and queen, the princess Katherine, and their nobles, enter by another. Henry and the French king and queen great each other warmly; the French Duke of Burgundy compares France to a garden overrun by weeds and asks why they should not have peace. Henry says they will, as soon as they satisfy his demands. The French king says he has only glanced at Henry's demands and suggests a council. Henry empowers the English noblemen to speak for him and they, with the French king, queen, and nobles, leave to discuss the demands. Henry stays behind with Princess Katherine and Alice, the princess's lady-in-waiting. The princess speaks little English, and the king claims that his French is poor. Nonetheless he slyly but aggressively woos her, saying he is only a rough soldier, but that he loves her. He tries to get her to say that she loves him, but she repeatedly claims that she cannot understand what he is saying. When Katherine protests that she could not love the enemy of France, Henry says that he is not France's enemy, that he loves France so much he will not part with even a village of it. He tries to kiss her hand, and then her lips, but Alice explains that it is not the fashion in France for an unmarried girl to kiss someone. Henry kisses her anyway.

The French king and queen return along with the French and English noblemen, the French having agreed to all of Henry's demands. Henry asks the French king for permission to marry Katherine, and the king agrees. The French queen hopes this marriage will be the end of war between England and France. Henry commands that the wedding be arranged, saying he will keep all his oaths.


The Chorus returns one last time to sum up the action. Although Henry only ruled for nine years (he died at the age of thirty-five), he conquered France and left it to his son, Henry VI. Many years later, Henry VI lost France again. This became the subject of three popular early plays by Shakespeare (Henry VI, parts one, two, and three), and the Chorus closes by expressing hopes that this play, too, will meet with the public's approval.


Heroes and Leaders

Of the seven English kings who appear in ten of William Shakespeare's plays, Henry V is depicted as the most heroic. He starts out as the wild and mischievous playmate of Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV parts one and two, but by the time of Henry V, the irresponsible Prince Hal of the earlier plays has renounced Falstaff and turned into a confident and decisive leader. In the play's opening scenes, he solicits davice from the Archbishop of Canterbury and his assembled lords as to whether he should invade France to claim the crown of that country: "May I with right and conscience make this claim?". However, his subsequent swift call for action implies that he had already made up his mind and was simply testing the court's support.

This confidence sets him apart from nearly all the other leaders—soldiers, kings, and princes—in Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare's most famous character, Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is almost the complete opposite of Henry V; Hamlet spends most of the play paralyzed by doubt, doubting himself and everyone around him. Shakespeare's more decisive leaders, such as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra or Henry IV in Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV are often troubled with doubts or mixed motives. Indeed, decisiveness often has mixed consequences in Shakespeare's plays, as it does for the fictional kings Lear and Macbeth, each of whom makes a decision that later leads to disaster. Perhaps the only other king in Shakespeare's plays who shows Henry V's level of confidence is Richard III. However, Richard III is depicted as evil and manipulative, and his decisions ultimately lead to his defeat and death.

Henry, on the other hand, possesses an almost supernatural confidence that is a key factor in obtaining the results he desires. Henry is not simply more decisive than Shakespeare's other leaders; in this play, at least, he never makes a mistake. His invasion of France is successful, he defeats a superior force at Agincourt, and he wins Princess Katherine's hand, if not necessarily her heart. It is for this reason, no doubt, that Henry V has remained a popular play in England, where it is often performed as a patriotic spectacle, as it was in the 1944 film version directed by Laurence Olivier.

Violence and Brutality

Henry V is still an ambiguous character in certain ways. Henry may be confident and decisive, but some of his actions are uncommonly brutal by modern standards. Some allowance must be made for the harsher rules of medieval warfare and even for the more difficult lives of those living in Elizabethan England. Nonetheless, it remains true that, for a heroic character, Henry can be unusually cruel. With few exceptions, his response is merciless whenever someone crosses him. His execution of the traitors Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey in Act 2 is perhaps excusable, given that they intended to kill him. However, he toys with them before he sentences them, deceiving them into making an argument against mercy for traitors, which he then uses against them. Later, at the siege of Harfleur, he threatens to turn his men loose on the city, to rape its young women and slaughter its old men and children—"Your naked infants spitted upon pikes"—unless the town's governor surrenders immediately.

Later, at the Battle of Agincourt, Henry orders that the French prisoners be executed—an action that would be considered a war crime in modern times. Some interpretations, such as Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version of the play, suggest that Henry orders this execution in a rage, as revenge for the French having killed the boys guarding the English luggage. Captain Gower, too, assumes that to be true, in the scene immediately following Henry's order. But Henry's brief, one-line command that "every soldier kill his prisoners" comes after Henry has learned that the French have brought reinforcements and before the audience learns of the boy's deaths, implying that Henry orders the executions simply because he needs manpower and cannot spare the men to watch the prisoners.

These actions are the relatively dispassionate decisions of a leader in wartime. However, Henry can be ruthless on a personal level as well. When Bardolph, his old friend from Falstaff's crew of rogues, is arrested for looting, Henry not only consents to his execution, he does not even refer to the fact that he used to know the man. He does not say Bardolph's name, just "We would have all such offenders so cut off." Falstaff's death, which occurs offstage, can also be laid at Henry's feet; it was Henry's renunciation of their friendship that led to the man's death from a broken heart. Shakespeare seems to imply that the reverse side of decisiveness is ruthlessness.


Further ambiguity arises in what is probably the most morally complex scene in the play, Act 4, Scene 1. Henry walks through the camp in disguise on the night before the battle, testing the resolve of his men. He encounters three common soldiers who do not recognize him. All three of the soldiers wish they were somewhere else and wonder if the king's cause is worth dying for. One of them, Michael Williams, puts it bluntly: "if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make." Speaking as an unknown stranger, the king makes a forceful and legalistic response; his reply boils down to the simple fact that a soldier's duty is to obey his king. He also shifts the debate in a subtle way by suggesting that many of the soldiers are sinners or criminals, and that their deaths are no concern of the king's. "Every subject's duty is the King's," says Henry, "but every subject's soul is his own." Michael Williams can only agree with this claim: "'Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head, the King is not to answer for it." To a contemporary reader, Henry sounds very modern in this scene; he speaks like a politician, answering the question he wants to answer instead of the one he was asked. Immediately following this encounter, Henry gives his only soliloquy—a monologue used to express the speaker's innermost thoughts—; even then, Williams's question has not raised doubt in Henry's mind about his cause, though it might have for Hamlet, King Lear, or Macbeth. Rather than questioning his actions, Henry spends fifty-five lines excusing himself and bemoaning the fact that a simple peasant, who has the luxury of sleeping untroubled through the night, carries a much lighter burden than the king.


The Wars for the Monarchy

Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies—two series consisting of four plays each—about the succession of the English monarchy from the late fourteenth century until the late fifteenth century. His first tetralogy is made up of Henry VI, parts one, two, and three, and Richard III.—These were the first plays Shakespeare ever produced. They dramatized the dynastic civil wars after the reign of Henry V, known as the Wars of the Roses (1455–1485), which occurred when two rival royal houses contested the legitimate claim to the English crown: the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Shakespeare's second tetralogy—Richard II, Henry IV, parts one and two, and Henry V—was written between 1595 and 1599 and reveals how that struggle originated in the late fourteenth century. Henry V is the turning point of the two tetralogies, the climax of one and the background of the other. The other seven plays in the two tetralogies are mainly concerned with who gets to be king and how that person wins (or steals) the crown and defends it against his rivals. Henry V is the only play of the series in which the king has no challengers and can devote his energies to a different goal, namely winning the crown of France.

The houses of Lancaster and York spent eighty-five years fighting for the throne, even though both were descended from Henry V's grandfather, Edward III. When Edward died in 1377, his grandson, Richard II, became king. Richard was only ten at the time, so his uncle John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, played the king's powerful role in politics. By the time Richard was old enough to reign on his own, a number of powerful noblemen opposed his rule. In 1399, Gaunt's son, Henry Bolingbroke, led these nobles in a rebellion against Richard and usurped his throne, becoming King Henry IV. Henry was descended from King Henry III (ruled 1216–1272) and used this ancestry to justify his claim to the crown; even so he spent much of his reign defending himself from powerful nobles who challenged his rule, some of whom had supported his struggle against Richard II. Henry IV was often ill during the final years of his reign, and two factions in his court contended for power: one led by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other led by the king's son. This struggle created tension between the king and his son, tension that persisted when Henry IV died in 1413 and his son became Henry V.

Henry V was born in 1387, and after his father died in 1413, he ruled until his own death in 1422. He was an intelligent and high-spirited young man, though the facts do not necessarily support the tales of his reckless youth that Shakespeare immortalized in the two parts of Henry IV. In 1403, at the age of sixteen, he was already leading the English forces against a rebellion in Wales, which he did very capably until 1408, after which he sought a role in his father's administration. Early in his reign, he quickly and mercilessly put down two challenges to his rule and subsequently devoted much of his energy to his ambition to rule France as well as England. In 1415, his first campaign in France climaxed with his famous victory over a larger French army at Agincourt on October 25 of that year. Another campaign in France ended victoriously in 1419, followed by the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, making him heir to the French throne. His marriage to Katherine, the daughter of the French king Charles, came only two weeks after the treaty. He continued fighting to gain the rest of France and died of camp fever at Vincennes in 1422. After Henry V died, as the epilogue to Henry V intimates, his son Henry VI was unable to keep France as his own reign dissolved into the Wars of the Roses.

The Elizabethan Age

The struggle between Lancaster and York finally ended with the rise of the line of monarchs known as the Tudors, which included Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603, reigning 1558–1603), the monarch during Shakespeare's time. By the time of Henry V's first production in 1599, she had been ruling England for over forty years, a period in English history that has come to be known as the Elizabethan Age. Thanks to England's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and its growing colonies in the Americas, England was becoming a world power during this period. At the same time, it experienced an extraordinary cultural flowering, manifested in the music of composers Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and John Dowland; the poetry of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser; and the plays of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Ford, and the greatest playwright of all, William Shakespeare.

The eighty-five-year struggle over the English crown depicted in Shakespeare's two tetralogies ended a century before he wrote his plays. Nonetheless, that unsettled period was well known to Shakespeare's audiences, chiefly through two famous histories, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles and Edward Hall's Union of Lancastre and York. In contrast with that era, England was relatively peaceful during Elizabeth's reign; most of the warfare of that period happened elsewhere, in Scotland, Ireland, France, and the Netherlands. Yet the events depicted in the tetralogies, which were mainly wars over the succession of the crown, remained a sober lesson for Elizabethan audiences. As Elizabeth neared the end of her life—she died four years after Henry V premiered—the English could only wonder if the death of the queen, who was childless and had not yet named an heir, would lead to another dynastic war and more turmoil in England itself. When Henry V was first performed, this anxiety over succession, combined with recent crop failures and an expensive war in Ireland, added to the appeal of this play about a strong, decisive, confident king who maintained peace at home and was successful in his military campaigns abroad.


The fate of the English monarchy was being fought over in the English Civil War, and after the first production of Henry V in 1599, the play was performed infrequently over the next century. The theaters were closed under the Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell, and the story of a powerful king may not have held much interest during an era when kings themselves could be executed. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the play was still rarely performed, but the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, London, revived it in 1738 and staged it thirty-two times in the next sixty years. During those years the scenes in which Henry executes the traitors (Act 2, Scene 2) and the common soldiers question the worth of the war (Act 4, Scene 1) were usually cut, making the character of Henry both more heroic and less complex. The Chorus scenes were often omitted as well, a decision supported by the critic Samuel Johnson, who in 1765 in Works of Shakespeare wrote of the Chorus, "a little may be praised, and much must be forgiven."

During the nineteenth century the British Empire became enormously powerful and Henry V was often performed as a patriotic spectacle, featuring large casts, elaborate staging, and impressive special effects. A production in 1859 by Charles Kean featured a cannon that spewed smoke and rocks against the city walls during the siege of Harfleur. The historian Thomas Carlyle, in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), wrote glowingly of the play: "There is a noble Patriotism in it…. A true English heart breathes, calm and strong, through the whole business; not boisterous, protrusive; all the better for that." On the other hand, in Characters of Shakespear's Plays, the critic William Hazlitt was careful to distinguish between the real Henry V and his fictional counterpart—"We feel little love or admiration for him. He was a hero, that is, he was ready to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives"—and the Henry of the play—"How then do we like him? We like him in the play. There is he a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant." Another nineteenth-century writer, Charles Knight, noted the ambiguity of Shakespeare's portrait of Henry in Studies in Shakespere. Knight examined the scene in which Henry threatens the city of Harfleur with death and destruction, "the poet tells us, though not in sententious precepts, that nationality, when it takes the road of violence, may be driven to put off all the gentle attributes of social life, and … have the tiger's undiscriminating bloodthirstiness."

Critics at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries took a more skeptical view of the play. In 1894, American critic Barrett Wendell wrote in William Shakspeare, a Study in Elizabethan Literature, that Henry is more an ideal than a man, and that audiences "gravely admire Henry V because we feel sure we ought to, [but] most of us would be forced to confess that, at least as a play, Henry V is tiresome." The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was even more critical, in Dramatic Opinions and Essays, saying that he can hardly forgive Shakespeare for thrusting such a hero down audience's throats: "The combination of conventional propriety and brute masterfulness in his public capacity with a low-lived blackguardism in his private tastes is not a pleasant one." Stage interpretations throughout the first half of the century, however, continued to stress the play's patriotism and Henry's heroism; the actor Frank Benson's many performances as Henry featured him vaulting over the walls of Harfleur in full armor. Laurence Olivier's Academy Award-winning film of 1944 featured what may be the most influential performance of Henry. Made in the last year of World War II, the film is both explicitly theatrical, beginning and ending on stage at the Globe Theatre, and unapologetically patriotic, showing Henry as the ideal English king and hero and cutting any scenes that might cause a modern audience to think badly of him.

By the 1960s and 70s, the debate over the Vietnam War found its way into stage interpretations of Henry V, and many directors and actors showed a darker side of the play. A 1964 Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford-upon-Avon presented a graphically bloody depiction of the Battle of Agincourt, and a production in 1966 in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, depicted Henry as showing no reaction at all when the body of his old friend Bardolph, hanged for looting, is flung before him. These and other productions through the 1970s featured Henry either as a dupe of the imperialistic Archbishop of Canterbury or as a ruler full of doubts about himself and the war he started.

These two strains of interpretation, the heroic and the grimly realistic, were brought together in 1989 in Kenneth Branagh's popular film. This film is grittier and more psychologically complex than Olivier's. Olivier filmed the Battle of Agincourt in a beautiful Irish landscape with soldiers in colorful uniforms; Branagh depicts it as a slow-motion horror of mud and gore, filled with men stabbing each other at close range and horses writhing in agony. But the film is stirring as well, especially during Branagh's performance of the St. Crispin's Day speech, and it ends hopefully, with Henry successfully wooing Princess Katherine, played by Emma Thompson.

This complexity of interpretation is reflected in contemporary criticism of the play. The American critic Stephen Greenblatt has claimed that the play presents critical, or subversive, interpretations of its own actions, but then refutes them, as in the scene between Henry and the skeptical common soldiers in Act 4, Scene 1. Greenblatt, quoted in Joan Lord Hall's Henry V: A Guide to the Play, writes that Henry V

registers every nuance of royal hypocrisy, ruthlessness, and bad faith, but it does so in the context of a celebration, a collective panegyric to "[t]his star of England," the charismatic leader who purges the commonwealth of incorrigibles and forges a martial nation state.


Laurence Olivier's stars as Henry in his famous film adaptation of Henry V (1944). Made during World War II, the film provides a patriotic interpretation of Henry, cutting certain scenes from the play (such as the execution of the traitors in Southampton and the killing of the French prisoners) that might reflect badly on the hero. The film is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Kenneth Branagh's equally famous adaptation of Henry V (1989) was produced by the BBC and Renaissance Films. Branagh's version is grittier and more realistic than Olivier's, though still stirring, and features a memorable score by Patrick Doyle. The film is available on DVD and VHS from MGM/UA Home Video.

An unabridged audio performance of Henry V, directed by Clive Bell, is available on three CDs from Arkangel, featuring Jamie Glover as Henry, Bill Nighy as the King of France, and Brian Cox as the Chorus.

"King Henry V's Conquest of France," a medieval English folksong about Henry V and the French king's insulting gift of tennis balls, is sung by the English folksinger Richard Thompson on his CD 1000 Years of Popular Music. It is available from Beeswing Records and at Thompson's website, www.richardthompson-music.com.

In "For God and Country," critic Alan A. Stone compares the two film versions in the context of the Iraq War, arguing that "the parallels between the king and [George W. Bush] are intriguing and even disturbing. Both leaders are hard-drinking playboys who found God, mended their ways, and followed their fathers into office," later leading their nations into foreign wars. The critic Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, locates the play's brilliance in the ambiguity at the heart of Henry himself. Bloom writes that "Shakespeare does not let us locate Hal/Henry V's true self; a king is necessarily something of a counterfeit, and Henry is a great king…. No one could fall in love with Henry V, but no one altogether could resist him either."


Alexander Harrington

In the following excerpt, Harrington, a theater director, examines whether Henry V is in favor of war or against war. He explores the morality of Henry's actions as a king and a warrior.

That Henry V can support both patriotic prowar and critical antiwar interpretations has been discussed to a fare-thee-well among Shakespeare critics, scholars, and directors.

Shakespeare's two-sided position can be seen even in a very quick examination of the play. In its first scene, the archbishops of Canterbury and Ely are fretting over a bill about to be passed by Parliament that would strip the church of much of its property. In order to get King Henry to kill the bill, Canterbury plans to offer a big contribution to the king's war chest for an invasion of France. Henry is descended from a French princess and claims that the crown should have passed to his great-grandfather when the last of the French descendents of the royal house died (the crown was given instead to a cousin of the royal family). The French have barred Henry's claim by holding up an ancient Frankish law (the Salic Law) that does not allow inheritance through women. In the next scene, Henry asks Canterbury whether the French argument is legitimate; if it is not, he believes, an invasion of France would be justified. In substance, Canterbury's argument is straightforward: the Salic Law was devised for territory that is now in Germany, not France, and the kings of France themselves have inherited through women. However, this argument is presented in such an absurdly intricate manner that, to an audience hearing it for the first time, it sounds like double-talk. It sounds like double-talk to Henry as well: after Canterbury's long speech, he repeats his question: "May I with right and conscience make this claim?" Canterbury replies, "The sin upon my head, dread sovereign." After exhortations from his nobles, Henry decides to invade.

Shakespeare is ambiguous as to whether Henry's claim is just. On the one hand, the audience knows that Canterbury has an ulterior motive for justifying the claim, and his speech comes across as obfuscation. On the other hand, his arguments are, given the values of dynastic politics, sound.

Later in the play, at a point when a lengthy siege has failed to get the French town of Harfleur to surrender, Henry tells the governor of the town that if the English are forced to continue the siege, he will no longer be able to control his soldiers. When the town falls, "look to see/The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand/Defile the locks of your shrill, shrieking daughters;/Your fathers taken by the silver beards, and their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;/Your naked infants spitted upon pikes." When the governor surrenders, Henry instructs one of his lords to "use mercy" to the inhabitants. Perhaps Henry's threats were a bluff. Nevertheless, it is morally questionable to threaten rape and murder, the killing of the old, and infanticide—even as a tactic.

As Henry and his troops march from Harfleur to the English-controlled port of Calais, Bardolph, one of Henry's drinking buddies from his wayward youth is arrested and executed for robbing a church. Henry supports the execution and proclaims,

We would have all such offenders cut off: and we give express charge in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play far a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

The lines recall Henry's repudiation of Falstaff. Here he consents to the death of a friend, but at the same time he insists, like a good king, on the humane and respectful treatment of French civilians.

With Henry's numbers depleted by disease and his soldiers exhausted and weakened, the French strike back, and, near the castle of Agincourt, attack Henry's remaining twelve thousand troops with a force of sixty thousand (a historically accurate figure). Immediately before the battle, Henry rallies his outnumbered troops with the famous "St. Crispin's Day" speech. One would expect that a scene of combat would follow. Instead, Shakespeare gives his audience a comic scene in which Pistol, another crony from Henry's wilder days, extorts ransom from a captured French soldier (Shakespeare has made it clear in Henry IV, Part I, that ransom is one of the perks of war). In the next scene, the French nobility decry their shame: they are losing to a smaller and weaker force. They swear to die wreaking havoc. When the French return to the field, Henry panics and orders his men to kill their prisoners—a violation of the rules of war in both medieval and Elizabethan times. The shamefulness of this act is ironically pointed up by the fact that it follows the description of two English knights chivalrously dying in each other's arms. Later, we discover that the French have killed the boys who were guarding the English supplies. A captain says that it is in response to this French atrocity that the king has ordered every man to kill his prisoners. But the audience knows that Henry was unaware of what the French had done when he gave the order. Perhaps this is simply an inconsistency that Shakespeare failed to correct. Or is the captain rationalizing Henry's war crime? Or is Shakespeare deliberately obscuring the issue of right and wrong?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it is important to stress that there are no combat scenes during the battle of Agincourt—a fact often obscured by the insertion of such scenes into movies and some stage productions. Shakespeare's depiction of one of the most significant battles in English history consists of a comic scene about ransom and scenes of one side's going off to commit atrocities (the French) and the other ordering atrocities (the English). Surely there is irony here.

Nonetheless, at the end of the battle, Shakespeare places God squarely on the English side. The English have won against extraordinary odds. The French have lost ten thousand men, the English twenty-nine (historically, the French lost approximately seven thousand, the English no more than five hundred). Shakespeare offers only one explanation for this incredible outcome: it is a miracle.

Source: Alexander Harrington, "War and William Shakespeare," in Dissent, Fall 2003, pp. 89-91.

Deborah Cartmell

In the following excerpt, Cartmell compares two famous film version of Henry V by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. She explores how the films differ from the play and from each other, and how each film provides a different interpretation of the character of Henry V and the nature of English nationalism.

Few dispute the impression that Laurence Olivier's Henry V is clearcut propaganda; filmed from June 1943 to July 1944 and premièred in London on 22 November 1944, the film appropriates Shakespeare in order to glorify war in a morale-boosting exercise.

Sponsored by the Ministry of Information, Laurence Olivier eliminates half of the play's lines (most notably, episodes which cast doubt on Henry's motives and heroism) and produces the unity which critics had found missing. To achieve this, he excludes the treatment of the traitors, the speech before Harfleur in which Henry pictures the consequences of war, Henry's exchange of gloves with Williams, Henry's acknowledgement of his father's guilt in the prayer before battle, the hanging of Bardolph, the order to slay the prisoners, Henry's bawdy exchanges with Burgundy and Katherine, and the final remarks of the Chorus who reminds the audience of the ephemeral nature of Henry's victory. With the film's dedication 'To the Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain, the spirit of our Ancestors', it is hard not to view the transformation of the Chorus's speeches to voice-over as evocative of a wartime correspondent describing through newsreel coverage the events leading up to the victory of D-Day.

Until Olivier's Henry V, Shakespeare scholarship tended to dismiss Shakespeare on film as it popularised through reduction and trivialisation of the play texts. Olivier changed (or rewrote) the play for both propaganda effects and as an answer to literary critics of the film. He defended his decisions by claiming later: 'I had a mission … My country was at war; I felt Shakespeare within me, I felt the cinema within him.' With Shakespeare's implicit permission, he 'improves' the play.

Undoubtedly, one of the most significant deletions is the ending, in which the Chorus relates the short-lived nature of Henry's triumph, and we are led to believe that Katherine and Henry, in the tradition of romantic comedy, will persevere happily into the future. This is a marriage of past and present, film and theatre, albeit a distortion of Shakespeare's jaundiced portrait of Henry in which the sexual conquest (or rape) of Katherine is compared to his conquest of France.

Olivier's version is in accordance with the dominant Shakespeare critics of the period; he rewrites (or interprets) the play as right-wing propaganda. In rewriting Henry V, Olivier has validated the play and created what has become nationalist, 'authentic' Shakespeare.

In 1989 the play was filmed by Kenneth Branagh, seemingly in an attempt to rescue Henry V from its status as propaganda. Dubbed in The Times on the day before Henry V's release as 'the young pretender', Branagh claimed that the play needed 'to be reclaimed from jingoism and World War Two associations.' Without doubt, Branagh's film both pays homage to its predecessor while seemingly recovering the history for an 1980s audience.

In his production of Henry V, Kenneth Branagh reverses many of the editorial decisions of Olivier; most notably, not to appear anti-European, he turns the French into worthy opponents and even makes the Dauphin a likeable figure. As with all film versions of Shakespeare, speeches have to be reduced in order to make the plays filmic—the long speeches freeze the action and can be boring to watch. As in the Olivier version, Branagh's Chorus is fragmented so that a few lines punctuate the action rather than suspend it. On the rare occasions when speech does suspend action, it has a shock effect on the audience. Such is the case of Judi Dench's rendering of Mistress Quickly's account of Falstaff's death and the rebuke to the King by Michael Williams (either deliberately or coincidentally played by the actor, Michael Williams), suggesting that Henry's cause is unjust and his word untrustworthy. Here we have close-ups, concentrating on the suffering of the individual and posing a question mark over the ethical position of the King. Henry himself achieves this intense visual scrutiny in his desperate prayer to the God of Battles on the eve of Agincourt. Initially it would seem that the close-ups are used by Branagh to question rather than approve the King's actions. Certainly, unlike Olivier's production, Branagh's film is—at least, initially—striking for its inclusions rather than its exclusions.

Perhaps the most notable of these inclusions are the sentencing of the conspirators and the hanging of Bardolph (which Branagh shows rather than simply reporting). Branagh also includes flashbacks to the Henry IV plays, depicting Falstaff and crew in the tavern, ostensibly to suggest Henry's betrayal of his comrades. The flashbacks are used again with the hanging of Bardolph and in the final moments of the film. We begin with Henry as an impenetrable mask of monarchy, presented as ruthless, distrustful and potentially evil. He tricks the conspirators and the atmosphere is one of tension—there are spies everywhere and the King can only maintain his position through subterfuge. The archbishops, unlike the ineffectual jokey figures of Olivier, are conspiring together, hardly holy figures, but shrewd and corrupt politicians. The King enters the film literally cloaked in darkness, forecasting the disguised king on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. For an 1980s audience, the inhuman, black-masked figure inevitably recalls Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977), and thus the audience is invited to regard the King—as does Michael Williams in the later scene—with the utmost suspicion.

Through a series of intertextual references—flashbacks to other plays and films—the film initially seems to build a picture of Henry who is hostile and repellent. The close-up and flashback, however, rather than questioning his motives, ultimately soften and humanise the figure. When Bardolph is being hung, Branagh has Henry recall through flashback the ribald days of the tavern, while the close-up reveals his eyes to be moist—the tears blending with the rain. After the prayer to the god of battles in which Henry acknowledges his father's guilt in taking Richard's crown, there are definite tears in the King's eyes, and in his union with Fluellen after victory, he is definitely weeping. The vulnerability of the king in this scene is contrasted with and compared to the slaughtered boys. As David Robinson notes on the eve of the film's UK release: 'Branagh's Henry is strictly according to the Geneva Convention.' The image of the King carrying the dead boy—a former companion of his 'wild Hal' days and a victim of his dubious war—provides the emblem of the film, used in much of the publicity pictures: it visualises the ambivalence of this production which simultaneously glorifies and condemns Henry's war. Youth has been sacrificed; the King emerges at the end of the film as a 'real man.'

Branagh's Henry V does not inspire feelings of nationalism, as in the Olivier film, but rather, as Graham Holderness remarks, conveys the emotions of patriotism. But these emotions grip you unawares. The first third of the film is markedly anti-war and anti-patriotic; but by the end, the audience is cheering the King alongside his rebel ranks (like the opportunistic and corrupt Pistol and Nym, who can't help but feel inspired by the St Crispin's Day speech).

Source: Deborah Cartmell, "Shakespeare, Film and Nationalism: Henry V," in Interpreting Shakespeare on Screen, Macmillan Press, 2000, pp. 94-108.


Bloom, Harold, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, 1998, pp. xiii-xv, ix, 323-24.

Carlyle, Thomas, excerpt from On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), in Shakespeare: Henry V, a Casebook, edited by Michael Quinn, Macmillan, 1969, p. 38.

Hall, Joan Lord, Henry V: A Guide to the Play, Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 13-14, 104, 133-34, 139, 142-43.

Hazlitt, William, excerpt from Characters of Shakespear's Plays (1817), in Shakespeare: Henry V, a Casebook, edited by Michael Quinn, Macmillan, 1969, p. 37.

Johnson, Samuel, excerpt from Works of Shakespeare (1765), in Shakespeare: Henry V, a Casebook, edited by Michael Quinn, Macmillan, 1969, p. 34.

Knight, Charles, excerpt from Studies in Shakespere (1849), in Shakespeare: Henry V, a Casebook, edited by Michael Quinn, Macmillan, 1969, p. 40.

Shaw, George Bernard, excerpt from Dramatic Opinions and Essays (1907), in Shakespeare: Henry V, a Casebook, edited by Michael Quinn, Macmillan, 1969, pp. 55-56.

Stone, Alan A., "For God and Country," in Boston Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, February/March 2005, p. 58.

Wendell, Barrett, excerpt from William Shakspere, a Study in Elizabethan Literature (1894), in Shakespeare: Henry V, a Casebook, edited by Michael Quinn, Macmillan, 1969, p. 54.

Henry V

views updated May 14 2018

Henry V

by William Shakespeare


A play set in England and France in 1415; first performed and published around 1598.


A young English king leads his nation to victory in a war against France.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

By 1598, near the end of his first decade as a playwright, William Shakespeare had written a number of plays that dramatized England’s recent past. These plays concerned the struggles for control of the English throne that ravaged the country between 1399 and 1485. Henry V was the last of this set of plays to be written, and the only one that does not concentrate on the seizure of the English throne; rather, the triumphant reign of King Henry V, with its crowning jewel, the subjugation of the French at the Battle of Agincourt, provides the focus of the play. The play highlights a critical stage in the consolidation of authority under the English monarch.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The struggle for the English Crown

The reign of Henry V (1413-1422) constitutes one of the high points of the English monarchy. It was a period of triumph: Henry’s subjugation of France in three successful campaigns filled England with pride for centuries. Heightening the glories of Henry’s reign were the political and social instabilities that both preceded and succeeded his rule.

Trouble began with the death of Edward III, England’s king from 1327 to 1377. Edward III ruled effectively, and left a large family, but his heir, Edward the Black Prince (so called for his black armor), predeceased his father. The next heir was the Black Prince’s son, Richard, who ascended the throne on the death of his grandfather, in 1377. (See Richard II , also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times.) Headstrong, extravagant, and suspicious, Richard abused his authority: he squandered the money Parliament allowed him to collect in taxes and alienated the nobility by eliminating perceived threats. Not only did he exile the future Henry IV, as well as the earls of Warwick, Derby, and Nottingham, but Richard also had the earl of Arundel executed, murdered the duke of Gloucester, and placed his trust in advisors disliked by the rest of the aristocracy. He also waged an Irish campaign that was both costly and time consuming. When Henry Bolingbroke rose against the king in 1399, Richard was forced to abdicate; Bolingbroke became Henry IV.

Henry IV’s seizure of the crown inaugurated a century of nearly perpetual trouble. His deposition of Richard showed the rest of the nobility (many with plausible claims to the throne) that action, not birthright, made a man a king; he consequently spent much of his 14-year reign fending off power-hungry nobles. He established a firm enough reign to leave his son the throne, but Henry V was handed a thorny legacy. Henry’s reign would be relatively brief, less than ten years. In this time, he would stabilize the rule of his family, the House of Lancaster, by leading England to victory over France.


Henry IV’s usurpation of the throne defied a long-established political doctrine: the divine right of kings. Since the Middle Ages, Christian Europe generally believed that government was inspired and approved by God. According to the tenets of divine right, monarchs ruled by the will of God and were accountable to Him alone; monarchy itself was a divinely ordained institution; hereditary right could not be abolished; and subjects were charged by God to obey their sovereign, even if they believed he was wicked and corrupt. To rise up against an “anointed king’’—so called because of the precious oils rubbed upon him during the sacred ceremony of his coronation—was to offend against God. In Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, the shadow of Richard II’s deposition and murder hangs heavily over his successors—Henry IV is continually haunted by the memory of his deed, as is his son, Henry V, when he, in turn, ascends the throne. Beset by anxieties and fearing an English defeat at Agincourt, Henry V fervently prays for strength and God’s mercy for past sins:

Not today, O lord,
O, not today, think upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interrèd new;
And on it have bestowed more contrite tears
Than from it issued forcèd drops of blood.
     (Shakespeare, Henry V, 4.1.285-290)

Dynastic successions

The “Hundred Years’ War” refers to the series of wars between England and France that took place from 1338 to 1453. In the late twelfth century the English king Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, former wife of the French king Louis VII; with Eleanor came rights to her duchy, the large and fertile province of Aquitaine in southern France. Her English descendants inherited this rich prize, and reaped the benefits of favorable trade with it. However, the province, while officially English, was governed by the French, who predictably favored French interests, so the English perpetually feared the loss of this wealthy trade. For their part, the French monarchs tried to expel the English: “Every French king for 200 years had tried by war, confiscation, or treaty to regain Aquitaine. The quarrel was … bound for war” (Tuchman, p. 72).

If Aquitaine was the reason for the war between England and France, the tangled web of dynastic succession provided the pretext. In 1314 Philip IV of France died, leaving four children. Three sons succeeded him, but each died quickly and without a male heir. His fourth child, Isabella, married the English king Edward II and mothered Edward III, who was thus a strong candidate for the French throne. The French, unwilling to accept the sovereignty of an English king over French soil, chose instead Philip VI, nephew of Philip IV. Edward III, the French court ruled, could not assume the throne because of the Salic Law, an ordinance that forbade the French throne from being inherited through a woman.

However, the Salic Law was based on a deliberate misreading of French history. According to the French, the authority for the law was King Pharamond, the legendary founder of France, and the “Salic land” was France itself. The English correctly noted, however, that the “Salic land” was not France but a region of Germany between the Elbe and Sala rivers that had been conquered by France in 805 c.e.—four centuries after Pharamond was said to have lived. More-over, French kings continually used relationships to women to justify their reigns: Pepin, Hugh Capet, and Hugh’s son Louis X (St. Louis) all justified usurpations by claiming a superior title to the throne derived from a mother or wife. Thus, the English kings felt that it was perfectly legitimate to dishonor the politically based law.

In 1337 Edward III assaulted France. This first war ended inconclusively, with a truce, in 1342. In 1346 the English tried again. Outnumbered and on foreign soil, they seemed to have little chance of success; few, not even the English themselves, expected the spectacular triumph in the offing.

On August 26, 1346, the two armies met at Crécy. Edward was not trying to fight but to lead the English army to the safety of Flanders. Intercepted by the French, he had no choice but to attempt a battle. His being boxed into this corner turned out to be fortunate for the English—when the battle was over, they were victorious: 4,000 French soldiers, including many of the most famous French knights, lay dead. English casualties were a fraction of this amount, numbering only a few hundred.

After the victory, Edward led his army north to the port town of Calais. He conquered it, but only after a year-long siege that drained the English treasury and sapped his army’s will to continue fighting. This, and the catastrophe of the Great Plague, interrupted the war. A treaty was signed in 1348. However, the loss of Calais, which would remain in English hands until 1558, and other such blows to French dignity (throughout HenryV, Englishmen taunt the French with references to Crécy), ensured that the war would continue.

In 1356 renewed hostilities culminated in the Battle of Poitiers. Despite once again being badly outnumbered—with 8,000 men to 16,000 French soldiers—the English army under Edward the Black Prince won, and captured the French king. The king’s ransom brought England gold, valuables, and nearly a third of France; however, it proved difficult to hold on to this new wealth. The people in England’s new dominions thought of themselves as French, and were unwilling to be ruled by foreigners. Meanwhile, at home, Edward Ill’s rule began to fray under scandal, fiscal discontent, and the disgrace of many of his ministers. The nation was distracted from foreign affairs by the succession crisis that followed Edward’s death—not until Henry V took the throne in 1413 was an English king able to renew the war in an ambitious way.

History’s Henry

Born in 1387, Henry V spent his youth in the manner typical of a child in an extremely wealthy family. He learned to hunt, fight, and dance; he was trained to run a great estate. He was, in fact, a special favorite of Richard II, the king his father would dethrone. This usurpation changed Henry’s life. Instead of living and dying a wealthy, less significant member of the royal family, he became successor to the throne and defender of his father’s tenuous rule. Henry’s real schooling occurred in the saddle as he helped put down rebellions in Yorkshire, Scotland, and Wales between 1400 and 1407.

With his father’s reign secure by 1408, Henry, or Prince Hal, as he was called, settled into London life. It was then, and not in his adolescence, as Shakespeare implies, that he acquired his reputation as a rake. His wildness seems to have endeared him to the people of London, who saw it as proof of an active spirit. There was tension between father and son, which sprang from Hal’s popularity; Henry IV feared his son’s growing influence, especially since the prince disagreed with his father on various points of policy. Shortly before his death, the king called his son to account. Hal rode to the palace accompanied by his crowd of boisterous, well-armed knights; London gathered to cheer his defiance. Inside, however, he showed another face: he swore loyalty to his father and was as good as his word.


The Salic Law was not invented to keep Edward III from taking the Crown of France. However, it was recently minted jurisprudence, politically motivated, and without warrant in the political history of France. In 1318, after the death of the French king Philip IV’s eldest son, Louis X, Philip’s next eldest son took the throne as Philip V. Inconveniently for Philip, Louis had left a four-year-old daughter, Jeanne. To provide a retroactive justification for his coronation, Philip convoked an assembly of statesmen and jurists, who, predictably, approved Philip’s accession on the principle that women could neither rule France nor inherit the throne (to pass on to a husband or son). This law would be used in 1328 to invalidate Edward Ill’s claim to France, and again in 1413 to reject Henry V’s.

When he took the throne in 1413, Henry V abruptly extricated himself from his old circle. Thereafter, his advisors were sober, trustworthy men. He also showed political genius in placating his father’s enemies, restoring many to power, and funding charities and religious houses. When the time came for war, he led with confidence and conducted battle brilliantly; at the negotiating table, he bargained astutely.

In retrospect, Henry V appears to have possessed many of the virtues befitting a medieval king (generosity, piety, courage in war, skill in peace) and comparatively few of the usual black marks (capriciousness, tyranny, indecision). Given his many political successes, it was not surprising that English chroniclers, such as Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed, presented him as a heroic, larger-than-life figure, a depiction further popularized by Elizabethan playwrights, including Shakespeare. Indeed, of all the British kings, real and mythical, perhaps only King Arthur has lived more vividly in the British memory than Henry V.

Henry V in the Hundred Years’ War

Henry V’s successes in France were as glorious as his great grandfather Edward Ill’s, although more fleeting. He conducted three successful campaigns in France. The first (1415) culminated with the English triumph at Agincourt (see below). The second (1415-1419) solidified Henry’s rule over Normandy. The third (1420) followed the treaty of Troyes, which made Henry heir to the French throne; it aimed to secure the south of France, which remained loyal to the French king’s natural son, but was cut short by Henry’s untimely death.

Henry landed with a force of close to 10,000 men late in the summer of 1415. He immediately besieged Harfleur, a strategically important city in Normandy. Harfleur held out for more than a month. It was forced to surrender when reinforcements from Paris failed to arrive, but the English had little reason to feel encouraged. The prospect of conquering a whole nation, town by town, was daunting; even worse, winter was fast approaching, and fever had incapacitated much of the English army. Henry marched his army northwest, hoping to reach the safe haven of Calais (still an English possession). Believing that the main army of France lay far to the south, he expected an easy march.

But the massive French army had already trekked north, and now stood between the English and Calais. Henry tried every means to avoid battle: he even offered to surrender Harfleur and pay for the damage of the siege. Aware of their superiority, the French pressed into battle, a huge mistake on their part. On October 25, 1415, the two armies clashed near the village of Agincourt. At the end of the day-long battle, the elite of the French army had been killed, the army itself put to flight, and French morale devastated. The English were victorious.


Three times in less than 100 years, vastly larger and better-rested French armies, fighting on home soil for the fate of their own land, were beaten by English forces so conscious of their own inferiority that, each time, they tried to avoid battle. Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt seemed to be miraculous English victories.

But however miraculous they seemed, practical realities of the time can explain them. In many ways the French advantage was a hollow supposition, a perception that did little more than make the French lax in preparing for battle. First, from 1327 on, France’s leadership had been split by rancor, conflicting motives, and mutual distrust. At the time of Agincourt, France was embroiled in a lethal struggle for control of the Crown. The aging Charles VI experienced long bouts of insanity. His sons battled the duke of Burgundy for the right to succeed their father, so that Henry’s army often tramped through the countryside unhindered, while French forces fought each other around Paris.

The key to French failure, however, was strategic rather than political. The French understood an army as a convocation of different groups of armed men, each under the leadership of an aristocrat who was often unwilling to follow the orders of the king and his marshals. At key points in each of the three battles, some of these armed groups simply did not fight, whether because of poor communication, resentment, or a disagreement over strategy. English forces, though organized on the same principles, operated more efficiently: they were alert to fighting a formidable opponent, were relatively unified in their leadership, and knew that they could not count on support in the countryside if they retreated.

Most importantly, the French still believed that battle was a chivalric struggle between well armed noblemen. French leaders wanted to conduct battle as a group of individual fights between French and English knights. Generally the loser in such a fight would be killed only accidentally: he was much more valuable for the ransom he could bring if taken prisoner. French knights tended to disdain the commoners or hired soldiers who fought with spears or bows. In their view, such rabble were good only to provide support for the mounted knight. The French army had troops of archers for support, but it did not always use them, believing that it could break the English defenses with a cavalry charge.

When battle was joined, French knights would ride forward pell-mell, hoping first to strike terror into the hearts of the English commoners (who stood ready with spears as the first defense) and then to find a suitable English knight to fight. At Crécy, at Poitiers, and most resoundingly at Agincourt, the disorganized mass of French knights was cut down by a hail of arrows from England’s archers, which slowed their charge and gave the English soldiers on the front line a chance to stop it altogether.

The English did battle differently. Some years before his first campaign, Edward III had outlawed all sport for young men except archery. By the time they got to Crécy, England’s archers were the most skilled in Europe. They further more used a longbow, a lighter and more quickly fired weapon than the crossbow used by the French. Also, the defensive positions that the English had to adopt because of their numerical inferiority favored the effective deployment of banks of archers. In the end, their willingness to use bowmen was the real key to England’s success. The mounted knight who had dominated warfare throughout the Middle Ages proved vulnerable to a knot of commoners with cheap, easily made weapons. France lost three dukes, 90 counts, and 1,500 knights at Agincourt, along with thousands of commoners. English losses totaled 500, only three of whom had noble titles.

An Englishman on the French throne?

After Agincourt, Henry took his army home for the winter and did not return to France for two years. This was not unusual: medieval armies lacked the means for fighting until one side surrendered unconditionally; indeed they lacked even the concept of systematic war. Armies roamed around until a key battle was fought, at which point a truce would enforce peace until hostilities were resumed, often years later. In his second campaign of 1417-1419 (not represented by Shakespeare), Henry conquered much of Normandy by siege, while, for much of the time, the French were busy fighting domestic battles around Paris. By the beginning of 1420, Normandy had been subdued, and Henry was the ruler of a third of France. Paris lay ahead.

The next stage was diplomatic rather than military. Henry laid siege to Paris, the home of the French kings, but the French were in no shape to resist. The two main powers of France, the Burgundians and the forces of the Dauphin (the heir to the French throne), could not overlook their hatred of each other even with a conqueror at their gates, and Henry took advantage of the situation to capture the crown for himself. In May 1420, the Treaty of Troyes ended the war. By the terms of the treaty, the Dauphin was disinherited (he fled to the south of France, where he was still well supported). Charles VII remained king of France until his death, at which time Henry would take the throne. The treaty was sealed with a marriage: Henry wed Charles’s daughter, Catherine. In January 1421 Henry returned to England with a new kingdom and a queen.

In five years of fighting, Henry established himself as a military and political genius—one of the greatest fighting kings of the Middle Ages. In fact, he would be the last great fighting king of the Middle Ages. When he returned to France late in 1421 to renew his battle with the Dauphin, Henry was 35. In the middle of an inconclusive campaign, Henry fell ill, probably of dysentery. He died in August 1422, and with him died English hopes for domination of France. As successful as he was, Henry fought a type of war whose time had passed. The period of armed conquest on medieval lines was drawing to a close. Conditions allowed England to win France using tactics of the Middle Ages, but not to keep it.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

Henry V opens as two high-ranking clerics discuss a bill currently being proposed in Parliament. The bill would strip the Church of any lands that the king feels are being misused and return them to the Crown. To forestall the ratification of this proposal, the clerics decide to encourage Henry’s ambitions for the French throne. Henry has already announced his claim to dukedoms in France to the French king and is now considering war.

The king enters, and the two clerics explain to him why the Salic Law is invalid. The king calls for his counselors; they too approve an assault on France. Finally Henry calls for the


The bill mentioned in the opening scene of Henry V was an actual piece of legislation considered but shelved by Parliament in Henry IV’s reign. When Henry V took the throne, the measure (which would allow the king to confiscate Church lands almost at will if he could document abuses, or misuse of funds) was once more brought before Parliament High-ranking officials of the Catholic Church enjoyed wealth and power equal to those of the richest aristocrats in the land. The bishop of Winchester, for instance, commanded a yearly income of close to £4000 at a time when the average worker earned far less than a £100 a year. Such examples made the Church a target of ever-increasing resentment from both the common people and the king. Church officials were widely perceived as corrupt predators. Shady practices went all the way up the Church hierarchy: clerics of rank were often appointed to posts in parishes that they never visited, collecting a salary for the position without doing any work at all. In England, protest against such practices went under the name of Lollardism. Lollards, led by John Wycliffe, pressed simple but ambitious demands: an end to corruption in the Church, a reduced role for priests in the spiritual life of common people, and the printing of the Bible in English rather than Latin. Occasionally the protesters shamed a bishop or two, but for the most part they only suffered persecution for their pains. Meanwhile, the kings of the fifteenth century had reasons of their own to target the Church. The late Middle Ages witnessed an increased concentration of wealth in the hands of a few noble families, called magnates. Magnates owned vast estates in widely scattered parts of Britain; they commanded large personal armies and wielded tremendous political influence. At any time, an ambitious magnate could threaten the power of the monarch. Henry IV himself had begun as a magnate; after deposing Richard II, he had to put down the rebellions of other powerful landowners. It was essential for the king to remain stronger than the most powerful magnates. One way to do so was by taking power from the Church. Since the Church held most of its wealth in the form of grants from the king, the legal mechanism for this stripping already existed: all that was needed was a pretext. The Lancastrian kings found this pretext in the complaints of the Lollards.

French ambassadors who have been awaiting an audience. They bring a message from the Dauphin (the French heir to the throne) in reply to Henry’s claim to the French dukedoms. The Dauphin not only spurns the claim (as might be expected), he also sends a gift: tennis balls. The tennis balls are meant to ridicule Henry, not only for his youth but for his past, which was spent in the pursuit of frivolous pleasures rather than serious statecraft. This insult merely confirms what has already been decided: the English will attack France.

The scene shifts to a tavern in London, where the companions of Henry’s ill-spent youth—Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol—are watching over the deathbed of the king’s former friend, the drunken and cowardly Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff dies, signaling the demise of Henry’s youthful ways. From now on, he is wholly the noble and martial king. Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol will follow him to war, however; they provide both comic relief and the perspective of commoners on the battlefield.

Before the army can sail for France, Henry has to deal with a potentially inauspicious sign: he has caught three traitors who planned to kill him in exchange for money from the French. Henry arranges a drama. He asks the traitors what penalty he should impose on a soldier caught slandering him. All three traitors urge the utmost severity. Henry announces he will be lenient nonetheless, then hands the men papers in which they are charged with treason against their king. The traitors fall to their knees, confessing their guilt and begging forgiveness for their souls, but not for their bodies. They are then arrested and taken to be executed.

In the middle of Act 2, the French court makes its first appearance. The king, while defying the English threat, is cautious, but the Dauphin is arrogantly reckless. The constable of the French army warns the Dauphin that the English are a major force. However, when the English ambassador enters, his offers of peaceable negotiation are rejected.

The scene shifts at once to the midst of the Battle of Harfleur. Henry spurs his men to victory; after a brief scene of battle, he is shown behaving honorably to the subjected citizens of the city. Enlivening the Harfleur scene is a brief argument involving a Welshman (Fluellen), a Scot (Jamy), and an Irishman (Macmorris); this episode demonstrates the clashing personalities—despite their common aim—of the king’s forces, and allows for some fun with their different accents.

After a brief scene that displays the continued arrogance of the French court, Shakespeare moves ahead to the evening before Agincourt. In the French camp, all are bold and optimistic; they argue about horses, mistresses, and other unmartial topics. The English camp, by contrast, apprehensively awaits the day to come. A disguised Henry wanders through the camp to gauge the mood of his men. While in disguise, he quarrels with a common soldier; they agree to resume their fight after the battle, and exchange gloves so they will be able to recognize each other. Despite this light distraction, Henry is ill at ease, wondering if his cause is just and lamenting the men who will die in its pursuit.

This somber atmosphere departs with the morning. The next scene is pure English triumph as Henry rallies his troops with a rousing speech and informs the French herald that he will not permit himself to be ransomed should he be taken. As the battle rages, messengers from both sides report the various English successes; even the cowardly Pistol is shown taking a prisoner.


The scene in Henry V in which members of each nation of the British Isles (England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales) are shown working together—albeit somewhat contentiously—to conquer Harfleur is not entirely accurate as historical fact. While natives of the three nations that were more or less subject to England undoubtedly aided the English cause, the nations themselves were restive under the English yoke. From the time of Edward III, war against France nearly always meant war against Scotland, In fact, shortly after Troyes, Henry V’s forces captured and hanged 20 Scottish soldiers fighting for the French. Scottish lords generally took advantage of anything that distracted England to begin border raids or declare themselves free of English control. Ireland was similarly intransigent and accepted English supremacy only at the point of a sword. And Shakespeare’s audience would have been keenly aware that Henry’s father had faced a serious challenge to his authority in Wales from Owen Glendower, a warlord who harassed the English border for years in the name of Welsh autonomy. But if some liberty is taken in how loyal the other nations of the British Isles were, the play acknowledges their honor, especially in the Welsh character Fluellen. Fluellen is portrayed as brave and steadfast, though he is made somewhat ridiculous by the way he speaks and his loyalty is exploited when Henry charges him to wear a certain glove in his cap. Believing himself to have received a great honor, Fluellen obeys, only to be astonished when Williams, a common English soldier and the glove’s owner, attacks him. Unbeknownst to Fluellen, Williams and a disguised King Henry had earlier quarreled, then traded gloves to help them find each other in order to resume the quarrel later. In returning Williams’s blows, Fluellen unwittingly becomes part of a royal prank.

The French, by contrast, are lacking in bravery and run from the fray. Later, Henry is enraged to learn that French soldiers have massacred the pages set to watch the English tents; in retaliation, he orders all French prisoners killed. The last desperate onslaught of the French is repulsed; after a counting of the dead on both sides, the battle is over. Afterwards, Henry locates the man with whom he exchanged gloves, discloses the joke, and then returns the glove—filled with gold coins.

Shakespeare glides over the five years that separate Agincourt from the Treaty of Troyes. The last scene shows the negotiations leading to the treaty, and also switches from the martial to the marital; in a scene made comic by the princess’s poor English, and by Henry’s task of wooing his enemy’s daughter, the king attempts, and eventually wins, Princess Catherine’s heart. The rest—Henry’s untimely death and his son’s failures—are briefly alluded to in an epilogue, but the play itself ends on this celebratory note.

The character of Henry

In a popular legend, Henry spent his youth in frivolity and dissolution; he was said to have haunted taverns and brothels, and kept company with thieves and gamblers. But, just as his father faced the challenge of open rebellion, “Prince Hal” transfigured himself, throwing off his old associates and becoming a paragon of royal virtue. He was thus a mix of social height and social baseness; the skill and pride that accompanied his nobility was salted with an understanding of commoners gleaned from his youth. This combination paid off in France, where he led not as a king interested in advancing his own ambitions, but as the head of a unified nation. So, at least, runs the tale according to Shakespeare who, owing to a paucity of information, had to invent many details of Henry’s personality.

Shakespeare’s Henry V is an ambiguous character who has stirred controversy among a number of modern critics. The character’s defenders contend that, whatever his flaws, Henry V represents an ideal monarch of Shakespeare’s day, citing as evidence the justness of Henry’s claim to France, his adroit handling of the three English traitors, his willingness to listen—while disguised—to the complaints and fears of common soldiers on the night before Agincourt, and his ability to rouse his troops to greater efforts in battle with the stirring declaration that “he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother. Be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” (Henry V, 4.3.62-64). By contrast, the character’s detractors charge that greed was Henry’s motive for going to war with France, cite his killing of the French prisoners at Agincourt as proof of his belief in the superiority of brute force, and complain about his “awkward” wooing of Princess Katherine. It savors more, they say, of the boastful, triumphant king than the ardent lover: “I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it—I will have it all mine. And, Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine” (Henry V, 5.2.173-76).

Behind the controversy is the question of Henry’s true motives. History shows that, by today’s standards, not all Henry’s actions were admirable. More than once, he proved himself capable of brutal treatment. Early in his reign, Henry put down a Lollard rebellion. It is reported that during a public burning of a Lollard, the condemned man began to scream for mercy. Henry ordered the fires extinguished and asked the man if he would recant his beliefs. When the man refused, Henry ordered the fires relit. He was no less severe when he discovered that an old friend and advisor, Sir John Oldcastle, was a leader of the Lollards. (Oldcastle was the original name used for the character Falstaff; it was changed when Oldcastle’s descendants complained.) Henry had Oldcastle arrested, and eventually sent him to the stake with his followers.

Again in the French wars, Henry showed a capacity for ruthlessness. At Agincourt, he ordered all French captives slaughtered; while not unprecedented, this move went against the grain of medieval warfare. Armed combat was a formal, play-by-the-rules affair; once an opponent had cried mercy, the victor was normally bound to take care of him. Shakespeare, following the historians he consulted, presents the Agincourt slaughter as just revenge for French perfidy in stealing from the English army’s tents and killing the pages on guard there. Modern historians are more inclined to suspect a tactical motive, inasmuch as the great number of French captives was a liability to the English as long as battle continued.

According to this last view, Henry did what was strategically necessary. Modern historians have similarly argued that Henry married France’s Katherine because he recognized that the only way England could hold on to French lands, which rightfully belonged to it, was for Henry to rule France and be accepted by the people there. Finally, modern historians have described Henry as a man of “sincere piety” (Harriss, p. 202). His attack on the Lollards and defense of the Church establishment earned him, thought others in his time, “divine support” in the war against France, which gave them confidence in him (Allmand in Harriss, p. 120). Much about Henry remains elusive, but clearly he was adroit not only at soldiering but also at public relations. “Research has shown that for much of his reign Henry had the practical support of the majority of the highest nobility of the land”; he amassed popular support too, with the help of sermons such as one before his last trip to France, in which the king was called England’s “maistur mariner,” an appeal for the concept of a monarch and his kingdom united in war against an enemy, and under holy auspices (Allmand in Harriss, pp. 121, 122). Henry himself did much to further this concept. As king, Henry commanded a confidence in his person and purpose that enabled him to bring the “realm order, economy, unity, and respect for the crown” (Harriss, p. 209). In other respects, the man’s character remains ambiguous, as it is in Shakespeare’s play.

Sources and literary context

For Henry V, Shakespeare consulted his usual source: the historical chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, who was himself indebted to the writings of fellow historian Edward Hall. Some passages in Shakespeare’s play, such as the discussion of the Salic Law, follow Holinshed argument for argument. In addition, Shakespeare took incidents and ideas from the markedly inferior but popular anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (1598): this play contains many of the same episodes, and also juxtaposes weighty affairs of state with the soldiering of working-class recruits. For the scene in which Henry strolls through his camp in disguise, Shakespeare was probably indebted to a genre of plays popular in the 1590s, in which a ruler disguises himself to discover the true feelings of his subjects.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

From Henry VI to Shakespeare’s world

The marriage of Henry V to Katherine, daughter of French king Charles VI, seemed to guarantee that an Englishman would soon rule France. The promise was barely realized, with one such monarch. Henry VI was crowned French king in 1431, the only Englishman ever crowned on French soil, but his long reign (1431-61) was deeply troubled. Nine months old when his father died, he was never able to shake the influence of the English nobility, who ruled with a free hand during his minority. He reigned poorly, struggling to control nobles who moved ever closer to open rebellion; in 1461 he was deposed by the duke of York. By this time, the Dauphin, who had been disinherited by the Treaty of Troyes, ruled France. England had been utterly expelled; he accomplished this reversal mostly because of more effective military leadership (including Joan of Arc), and partly because the English were unable to pay the immense cost of foreign occupation. The gains of Henry V proved costly and impossible to sustain. In the end, his untimely death led to the loss of England’s foothold in France and eventually plunged England into civil strife.

In 1455, a period of civil war began that was to last for three decades. The Wars of the Roses pitted two factions of nobles against each other—the Lancastrians, led by Henry VI, and the Yorkists, led by the future Edward IV (the war was named after the floral badges worn by each side: red for Lancaster, and white for York). The deposing of Henry VI by Edward IV brought a Yorkist to the throne. But the change did not result in peace: the wars continued until the duke of Richmond defeated Richard III in 1485, becoming Henry VII, first king in the Tudor dynasty of Shakespeare’s day. Henry VII identified with the Lancastrians (he was descended from the second husband of Henry V’s widow), and his marriage to the Yorkist princess Elizabeth unified the two families.

Shakespeare’s England, which faced threats to stability in its own era, looked back on the confused events that plagued the fifteenth century with fear: the unrest reminded the people how easily personal ambition and disrespect for tradition could lead to civil chaos. However, from those horrible years shone a single ray of light; the reign of Henry V. “Good King Harry” was remembered with warm nostalgia, a nostalgia no doubt made the warmer by the coldness with which Shakespeare’s contemporaries viewed the other kings of the late medieval period. Henry V reflected more than just affection for the past, though; it also indicated apprehension about the future. Among other perils, England in the late 1590s, in which the play was written, experienced 400 percent inflation, Irish wars, and succession anxiety. Elizabeth I had reigned for nearly 40 years; her refusal to marry and beget heirs had left the question of succession open. Who would reign and how peacefully? Would the country bleed?

The discontented soldier

After he is beaten by Fluellen, Pistol announces that he will quit the soldier’s life and live by robbery. This decision reflects a concern, widespread in Shakespeare’s day, about the fate of the common soldier after his military career ended. Whether rightly or wrongly, many in sixteenth-century England believed that the ranks of highwaymen, bandits, and confidence artists were swollen with former soldiers.

In Henry’s time, war was a highly individual affair. The king commanded his vassals; the vassals brought varying numbers of foot-soldiers, for whom they were responsible. While payment for services could be erratic, the common soldier could generally be assured some form of support from the feudal state to which he would return. He might even be enriched by the fruits of pillage or (more rarely) ransom. The decline of feudalism during the Tudor monarchies tended to remove this security. Returning veterans were, like many displaced people, likely to fall through the gaps in a society whose poverty laws were a tattered patchwork of good intentions. Unlike other displaced persons in this society, veterans had weapons and the ability to use them. As soldiers, they had learned that violence brought wealth. Discharged from service, the poor soldier could easily become a beggar, robber, or thug. In fact, many beggars attempted to gain sympathy by claiming the respect due to a veteran, and people of the time assumed that it just took one desperate night for a beggar to become a thief. While actual numbers are hard to come by, the literature of the period is full of portrayals of the swaggering, intimidating military bully.


Although Henry V was first performed in 1599, the earliest recorded criticism does not appear until well into the seventeenth century. In 1691 Gerard Langbaine noted a historical parallel between the play and England in Queen Elizabeth’s day: “This play was writ during the time that [the earl of] Essex was General in Ireland, as you may see in the beginning of the [fifth] Act, where our Poet, by a pretty Turn, compliments Essex, and seems to foretell Victory to her Majesties Forces against the Rebels” (Langbaine in Scott, p. 185). Other critics singled out characters and the execution of various scenes. Fluellen became a favorite; Charles Gildon called the character “extreamly [sic] comical, and yet so very happily touch’d, that at the same time when he makes us laugh, he makes us value his Character” (Gildon in Scott, p. 187). Gildon also praised Henry V as “very noble” and complimented some of his speeches as “very fine” (Gildon in Scott, pp. 186-187). Gildon was less impressed by the wooing scene between Henry and Katherine, which he described as “extravagantly silly and unnatural” (Gildon in Scott, p. 187). In the late eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson had a similar opinion: “The character of the King is well-supported, except in his courtship.” In Johnson’s view, “the great defect of this play is the emptiness and narrowness of the last act,” but apart from this, HenryV “has many scenes of high dignity, and many of easy merriment” (Johnson in Scott, p. 190).

—Jacob Littleton

For More Information

Earle, Peter. The Life and Times of Henry V. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Harriss, G. L., ed. Henry V: The Practice of Kingship. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Holinshed, Raphael. Shakespeare’s Holinshed. 1587. Ed. Richard Hosley. New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1968.

Labarge, Margaret. Henry V. London: Secker and Warburg, 1975.

Morgan, Kenneth. The Oxford History of Britain. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Scott, Mark W. ed. Shakesperean Criticism. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1987.

Shakespeare, William. King Henry V. Ed. Claire McEachern. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Sprague, A. C. Shakespeare’s Histories: Plays for the Stage. London: Society for Theatre Research, 1964.

Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror. New York: Bantam, 1978.

Henry V

views updated Jun 11 2018


UK, 1944

Director: Laurence Olivier

Production: Two Cities Film, presented by Eagle-Lion; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 153 minutes, some versions are 137 minutes. Released 22 November 1944, Carlton Theatre, London. Filmed 9 June 1943–12 July 1944 in Enniskerry, Eire; and at Denham and Pinewood Studios, England. Cost: about £400,000.

Producers: Laurence Olivier with Dallas Bower; screenplay: Laurence Olivier and Alan Dent, from the play by William Shakespeare; photography: Robert Krasker; editor: Reginald Beck; sound recordists: John Dennis and Desmond Drew; art directors: Paul Sheriff assisted by Carmen Dillon; scenic art: E. Lindgaard; music: William Walton; conductor: Muir Mathieson; played by: London Symphony Orchestra; special effects: Percy Day; costume designers: Roger Furse assisted by Margaret Furse; the film is dedicated to the Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain—"the spirits of whose ancestors it has humbly attempted to recapture"

Cast: Leslie Banks (Chorus); Felix Aylmer (Archbishop of Canterbury); Robert Helpmann (Bishop of Ely); Vernon Greeves (English Herald); Gerald Case (Earl of Westmorland); Griffith Jones (Earl of Salisbury); Morland Graham (Sir Thomas Erpingham); Nicholas Hannen (Duke of Exeter); Michael Warre (Duke of Gloucester); Laurence Olivier (King Henry V); Ralph Truman (Montjoy, the French Herald); Ernest Thesiger (Duke of Berri, French Ambassador); Frederick Cooper (Corporal Nym); Roy Emerton (Lieutenant Bardolph); Robert Newton (Pistol); Freda Jackson (Mistress Quickley, the Hostess); George Cole (Boy); George Robey (Sir John Falstaff); Harcourt Williams (King Charles VI of France); Leo Genn (Constable of France); Francis Lister (Duke of Orleans); Max Adrian (Dauphin); Jonathan Field (French Messenger); Esmond Knight (Fluellen); Michael Shepley (Gower); John Laurie (Jamy); Nial MacGinnis (Macmorris); Frank Tickle (Governor of Harfleur); Renée Asherson (Princess Katherine); Ivy St. Helier (Lady Alice); Janet Burnell (Queen Isabel of France); Brian Nissen (Court, camp-boy); Arthur Hambling (John Bates); Jimmy Hanley (Michael Williams); Ernest Hare (Priest); Valentine Dyall (Duke of Burgundy); and Infantry and Cavalry by members of the Eire Home Guard.

Awards: Special Oscar to Laurence Olivier for his Outstanding Achievement as Actor, Producer, and Director in bringing Henry V to the screen, 1946; New York Film Critics' Award, Best Actor, 1946; Venice Film Festival, Special Mention, 1946.



Olivier, Laurence, and Alan Dent, Henry V, in Film Scripts One, edited by George P. Garrett, New York, 1971.


Oakley, C. A., Where We Came In: 70 Years of the British Film Industry, London, 1964.

Whitehead, Peter, and Robin Bean, Olivier-Shakespeare, London, 1966.

Darlington, W. A., Laurence Olivier, London, 1968.

Eckert, Charles W., editor, Focus on Shakespearian Films, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972.

Geduld, Harry M., editor, A Filmguide to Henry V, Bloomington, Indiana, 1973.

Perry, George, The Great British Picture Show, from the 90s to the 70s, New York, 1974.

Barsacq, Leon, Caligari's Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions: A History of Film Design, New York, 1976.

Morley, Margaret, editor, Olivier: The Films and Faces of Laurence Olivier, Godalming, Surrey, 1978.

Hirsch, Foster, Laurence Olivier, Boston, 1979; revised edition, 1984.

Daniels, Robert, Laurence Olivier: Theatre and Cinema, London, 1980.

Olivier, Laurence, Confessions of an Actor: An Autobiography, New York, 1982.

Barker, Felix, Laurence Olivier: A Critical Study, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, 1984.

Bragg, Melvin, Laurence Olivier, London, 1984.

Silviria, Dale, Laurence Olivier and the Art of Filmmaking, Rutherford, New Jersey, 1985.

Tanitch, Robert, Olivier: The Complete Career, London, 1985.

Dunster, Mark, Olivier, Hollywood, 1993.

Spoto, Donald, Laurence Olivier: A Biography, New York, 1993.

Lewis, Roger, The Real Life of Laurence Olivier, New York, 1999.

Granger, Derek, Laurence Olivier: The Life of an Actor: The Authorized Biography, New York, 1999.


Variety (New York), 24 April 1946.

New York Times, 16 June 1946.

Agee, James, Agee on Film 1, New York, 1958.

McVay, Douglas, "Hamlet to Clown," in Films and Filming (London), September 1962.

Brown, Constance, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1967.

Hart, Henry, "Laurence Olivier," in Films in Review (New York), December 1967.

McCreadie, M., "Onstage and on Film," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Fall 1977.

Manheim, M., "Olivier's Henry V and the Elizabethan World Picture," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), July 1983.

Reid's Film Index (Wyong), no. 4, 1990.

Martini, E., in Cineforum (Bergamo, Italy), July-August, 1990.

Nichols, Peter, "A Classy Tale," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 6, October 1991.

Deats, S. M., "Rabbits and Ducks: Olivier, Branagh, and Henry V," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 4, 1992.

Manheim, M., "The Function of Battle Imagery in Kurosawa's Histories and the Henry V Films," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 22, no. 2, April 1994.

Buhler, S.M., "Text, Eyes, and Videotape: Screening Shakespeare's Scripts," in Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 2, 1995.

Crowdus, Gary, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 22, no. 1, April 1996.

Bibliography, in Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 5, 1996.

Griffin, C.W., "Henry V's Decision: Interrogataive [sic] Texts," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 25, no. 2, April 1997.

Royal, Derek, "Shakespeare's Kingly Mirror: Figuring the Chorus in Olivier's and Branagh's Henry V," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 25, no. 2, April 1997.

Bibliography, in Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 5, 1997.

* * *

At the beginning of his career Laurence Olivier did not specialize in interpreting Shakespearean roles on the screen. He had played many of Shakespeare's greatest characters on stage, and was especially praised for having alternated with John Gielgud in the roles of Romeo and Mercutio in the 1935 production of Romeo and Juliet at London's New Theatre. He was charming in the 1936 film production of As You Like It as Orlando, but he really didn't take his film career seriously until 1939, when he played Heathcliff in Goldwyn's production of Wuthering Heights.

With the coming of war, his filmmaking was largely curtailed, but more than halfway through the conflict, when the Allied victory seemed certain, Olivier was released from his military duties to produce, direct, and star in a film to be made from Shakespeare's Henry V. Because the play is so patriotic, it was thought by the British government that the project would create a wonderful piece of nationalistic propaganda. Olivier had already played Henry V at the Old Vic, and knew what he wanted to achieve—a movie version that would restore glory to the common man's thinking about his own country.

There were some preliminary setbacks. David O. Selznick refused to allow Vivien Leigh to play the role of the French Princess Katherine; he thought it too small a role for the star of Gone with the Wind. Olivier chose Renée Asherson, Robert Donat's wife, for the part. He wanted William Wyler as director, because Wyler had directed him in Wuthering Heights. But Wyler was busy on another project, and suggested that Olivier himself direct the film. Olivier considered it, and began preproduction work, but the film might never have been made, were it not for the efforts of an Italian lawyer, Filippo del Giudice, who had been the driving force behind Nöel Coward in In Which We Serve. Del Giudice wanted another patriotic classic, and he eased Olivier's working budget of £300,000 upward more than another £100,000 for Henry V.

Olivier, preparing his own screenplay from the Shakespearean text, cut the play nearly a quarter so that he could give ample time to the staging of the Battle of Agincourt. He lifted the death of Falstaff from the last scenes of Henry IV, Part II, wisely casting a music hall comedian, George Robey, as Falstaff. He decided to begin his picture and end it as if it were a performance at the Globe Theatre in the time of Shakespeare, who had created the device himself when, in the lines of the Chorus in the Prologue, he instructs the audience, "On your imaginary forces work," leaving the way open for a very inventive cinematic trick: the camera pulls back, and we are out of the Globe and immediately into the conflict.

The critic for Time wrote: "At last there has been brought to the screen, with such sweetness, vigor, insight and beauty that it seemed to have been written yesterday, a play by the greatest dramatic poet who ever lived." Henry V ran for five months in London, and it played on Broadway for 46 weeks. It opened the door for Olivier to other Shakespearean films. His Hamlet (1948) came next; then Richard III (1955). Ten years later in 1965 it was Othello, with Olivier as the Moor of Venice.

—DeWitt Bodeen

Henry V

views updated May 21 2018

Henry V (1386/7–1422), king of England (1413–22). Eldest son of Henry IV and his first wife Mary Bohun, Henry was born at Monmouth. The exact date is unknown, but was most probably 9 August or 16 September 1386 or 1387. The young Henry was thrust into prominence by his father's successful usurpation of the throne in 1399. He carried the sword ‘Curtana’ at the coronation on 13 October and two days later was created earl of Chester, duke of Cornwall, and prince of Wales, and subsequently duke of Aquitaine and of Lancaster. From then on Henry took a prominent part in affairs as befitted the heir to the throne. Between 1400 and 1408 he was mostly in the west, concerned with the war against the Welsh, initially as a figurehead but increasingly as an effective leader. On 21 July 1403 he was with his father at the battle of Shrewsbury, where the English rebels under Henry Percy, ‘Hotspur’, and their Welsh allies were defeated. Henry took a prominent part in the battle, but the story that he killed Hotspur himself is without foundation. Between 1410 and 1413 there seems to have been tension between the king and the prince. Henry IV's health began to fail and at first Prince Henry took an increasingly prominent role in the king's council, supported by the chancellor, Thomas Beaufort. This led to factions in the council with divergent policies being pursued, especially with regard to France. In 1412 the prince's faction seems to have been defeated, because Beaufort resigned the chancellorship, and Prince Henry withdrew from the council. It is possible that the king was asked to abdicate in favour of the prince on the grounds of ill-health, but refused to do so and successfully reasserted his authority, supported by his son Thomas, who was made duke of Clarence. The story of the prince taking his father's crown from a cushion beside his bed as dramatized by Shakespeare may represent the actual disagreements between the prince and his father at this time. In the last fifteen months of the reign the prince seems to have taken little active part in government. Henry succeeded his father on 20 March 1413 and was crowned at Westminster on Passion Sunday, 9 April.

The start of Henry's reign was seen by contemporaries as a new beginning. Thomas Walsingham, a monk of St Albans, claiming that with the new king winter was past and the rain over and gone. Commentators were eager for the new reign and saw in Henry a man ‘young in years but old in experience’, who had dealt successfully with protracted Welsh rebellion and had been a prominent member of the king's council, well able to rule. The stories of Henry's wild youth and amazing ‘conversion’, as dramatized by Shakespeare, have some contemporary justification. The chronicler Elmham says that Henry ‘was in his youth a diligent follower of idle practices, much given to instruments of music, and fired with the torches of Venus herself’ and that on the night of his father's death, Henry visited a recluse at Westminster, made confession of his former life, and promised to amend. But the famous story of Henry's dispute with Lord Chief Justice Gascoigne, alluded to and embroidered by Shakespeare, is first recorded only in 1531 and has no foundation in fact. Perhaps it does not really matter whether these stories about Henry are true or not. They should be seen as symbolizing a break with the past, that is the failure of Richard II's and Henry IV's reigns, and a new beginning.

Henry lived up to these expectations and enjoyed considerable popularity during his reign. He provided good and dynamic leadership that fired widespread enthusiasm. He seems to have appealed to feelings of nationalism and nationhood; Christopher Allmand wrote that ‘It was as a very English Englishman that Henry caught something of the mood of the day.’ Henry encouraged the keeping of the festivals of English saints and promoted the use of English. He gave active encouragement to translators and began the use of English rather than French in government. From 1417 his signet letters to his English subjects were written in English. He used the war with France to promote the idea that England was a nation blessed by God and favoured because their king was also favoured. The general enthusiasm for the war is evidenced by the large number of the nobility who followed him to France, and by the generous grants of taxation made by Parliament before the first campaign. The contemporary Agincourt carol commemorated the battle as a famous English victory. The Gesta Henrici Quinti describes the reception of the king after he returned to England after Agincourt. The Londoners staged a triumphal entry with music and pageants attended by great masses of people, the civic dignitaries escorting the king from Blackheath.

A desire to create unity and nationalistic fervour were not the only reasons for Henry's aggressive policy towards France. He seems truly to have been persuaded of the justice of his claims. He did not at first claim the French throne but began by pressing for the implementation of the treaty of Calais of 1360 in which the French had ceded Aquitaine, and to which he added further claims to Normandy, Touraine, and Maine. It is not clear whether Henry really expected to gain his ends by diplomacy, for he had made extensive preparations for war before the negotiations broke down in June 1415. The subsequent campaigns for the conquest of France were thoroughly well organized. Henry's diplomacy secured the early neutrality of John, duke of Burgundy; and after Agincourt the whole-hearted support of the Emperor Sigismund, with whom he signed the treaty of Canterbury in 1416. Militarily his main objective was the systematic reduction of the main centres of northern France. These, when provided with permanent garrisons, would become the centres from which the countryside could be subdued and governed. Henry's idea was that, once the initial conquests had been made, further warfare would pay for itself in the form of taxes from his new lands. The initial invasion was financed by borrowing and through generous parliamentary grants. The first campaign brought the capture of Harfleur in September 1415, and victory at Agincourt on 25 October 1415. Further campaigns were aimed at the effective conquest of Normandy, during which Rouen fell in January 1419. Henry's success forced the French to agree to the treaty of Troyes in May 1420, by which Henry was recognized as heir to the throne of France. The treaty was cemented by Henry's marriage to the Princess Catherine, which took place on 2 June. After this Henry continued his campaigns to reduce areas of the country still loyal to the deposed dauphin, Charles. During the sieges of Melun and Meaux his health began to fail and he died, probably of dysentery, at Bois de Vincennes on 31 August 1422, leaving, as his heir to both crowns, his son Henry, less than a year old.

Even before Henry's death the initial enthusiasm for the war was waning in England. There were complaints about the high levels of taxation needed, and in 1421 the Norfolk gentry refused to join Henry in France. There was widespread resistance to Henry in France and, even in Normandy, English rule was not as welcome as Henry had assumed that it would be. It has been argued that the treaty of Troyes, which appeared to have been such a triumph, was in fact a mistake and that Henry would have been better advised to restrict himself to securing Normandy. Henry's interest in Europe was not limited to the war with France, however, and he had notable success at the Council of Constance, where, in collaboration with the Emperor Sigismund, he helped to resolve the Great Schism. It is possible that all Henry's efforts with regard to France and the papacy were ultimately directed towards his plans for a crusade, which he never undertook.

Lynda Rollason


Allmand, C. , Henry V (1992);
Seward, D. , Henry V as Warlord (1987);
Taylor, F., and Roskell, J. S. (eds.), Gesta Henrici Quinti: The Deeds of Henry V (Oxford, 1975);
Wylie, J. H., and Waugh, W. T. (eds.), The Reign of Henry V (3 vols., Cambridge, 1914–29).

Henry V

views updated May 29 2018

Henry V

Henry V (1387-1422) was king of England from 1413 to 1422. His reign marked the high point in English attempts to conquer France. While the long-term effects of his reign were minimal, Henry V became a folk hero in English literature.

The eldest son of Henry of Lancaster and Mary de Bohun, Henry V was born at Monmouth on Aug. 9, 1387. His early military training was under Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, and he is believed to have been educated at Queen's College, Oxford, under his uncle Henry Beaufort (later bishop of Winchester). Henry's early years were spent in various military campaigns, and in Ireland in 1398-1399 he was a hostage of Richard II. (Richard was deposed in 1399 by Henry's father, who then became King Henry IV.)

At the age of 15 Henry was leading royal forces against Conway, Merioneth, and Carnarvon, fighting Owen Glendower. By 1403 he was fighting with his father at Shrewsbury; 2 years later he was fighting in Wales, capturing Aberystwith, and by 1407 was invading Scotland. All this military activity negates the idea that he spent his youth in dissipation with no regard for his reputation, an idea that Shakespeare took from the work of Edward Hall. He also fought in France against the Armagnacs but withdrew from the Council in 1412, when his French policy was rejected. Coming to the throne on March 21, 1413, Henry was so secure that he pardoned the Percy family, who had conspired against his father, and gave the remains of Richard II an honorable burial.

In internal matters Henry seems to have followed his father's religious policies: the abolition of alien priories, the repression of the Lollards in 1414, and the arrest of Sir John Oldcastle 3 years later. However, he appears to have been favorable to the plan of the lay peers to confiscate some of the Church's wealth.

In external matters Henry revived the English claims to the French crown and is best remembered for his military activities to achieve this end. In August 1415, after dealing with a conspiracy to remove him from the throne, he led an army of 20,000 foot soldiers and 9,000 horsemen to attack Harfleur and, after sending a large part of his army home due to illness, marched to Calais to secure a base for further operations. On the way, unable to avoid a vastly superior French army, he gave battle at Agincourt on Oct. 25, 1415, gaining a great victory and capturing the constable of France and the Duke of Orléans.

Henry soon returned to England to gain new supplies and men, to solidify English support for his further campaigns, and to build a navy. By 1417 he was back in France, attacking Cherbourg, Coutances, Avranches, and Évreux as well as capturing most of Normandy and the key city of Rouen. By making an alliance with Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, Henry was able to make the Treaty of Troyes (May 21, 1420), by which he was declared the heir to Charles VI, regent of France and lord of Normandy, thus uniting the thrones of England and France. The terms of the treaty included Henry's marriage to Catherine of France.

The French Dauphin and his followers, who did not accept the treaty, continued to oppose Henry, who returned to campaigning, capturing Melun in November and making a triumphal entrance into Paris the following month for the treaty's ratification by the Parliament of Paris. After making plans for the governing of Normandy, Henry took his bride to England to be crowned queen and devoted time to internal affairs, reforming the Benedictine monasteries and dealing with James I of Scotland.

After the defeat of the English forces under the Duke of Clarence at Beauge, Henry was forced to return to France to reestablish his control in March 1421; there he relieved Chartres and drove the forces of the Dauphin across the Loire. After capturing Meaux the following year while on the way to help his ally, the Duke of Burgundy, Henry came down with a fatal fever and died on Aug. 31, 1422, at Bois de Vincennes at the age of 35. After a funeral procession back to England, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Further Reading

There are many good biographies of Henry V, beginning with the 16th-century study The First English Life of King Henry the Fifth, edited by Charles Lethbridge Kingsford (1911). Other biographies include James Hamilton Wylie, The Reign of Henry the Fifth (3 vols., 1914-1929); Ernest Fraser Jacob's short and interesting Henry V and the Invasion of France (1947); Harold F. Hutchinson, King Henry V: A Biography (1967); and C. T. Allmand, Henry V (1968). The military campaigns are discussed in such works as Edouard Perroy, The Hundred-Years War (trans. 1951), and Christopher Hibbert's shorter Agincourt (1964). Background information is in Ernest Fraser Jacob, The Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485 (1961).

Additional Sources

Allmand, C. T., Henry V, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Barbie, Richard A., Good King Hal, Chicago, Ill.: Dramatic Pub. Co., 1981.

Brennan, Anthony., Henry V, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

Candido, Joseph, Henry V: an annotated bibliography, New York: Garland Pub., 1983.

Earle, Peter, The life and times of Henry, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972.

Gesta Henrici Quinti = The deeds of Henry the Fifth, Oxford Eng.: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Labarge, Margaret Wade., Henry V: the cautious conquerer, New York: Stein and Day, 1976, 1975.

Labarge, Margaret Wade., Henry V: the cautious conqueror, London: Secker and Warburg, 1975.

Lindsay, Philip, King Henry V: a chronicle, London, Howard Baker Publishers Ltd., 1969.

Seward, Desmond, Henry V: the scourge of God, New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1988, 1987. □

Henry V

views updated Jun 27 2018

Henry V

Henry V (1081-1125) was Holy Roman emperor and king of Germany from 1106 to 1125. The last of the Salian line of emperors, he continued the struggle with the papacy over lay investiture that had been carried on by Henry IV.

In 1106 Henry V succeeded his father, Emperor Henry IV, against whom he had rebelled the previous year. He was, like his father, a man of great ability who had to spend most of his reign in a struggle against the papacy over investitures and in attempts to keep his unruly German nobles under some form of control.

Henry began his reign by restoring a measure of order in Germany. Then, in 1110, he crossed the Alps into Italy; he marched on Rome with a large army and forced Pope Paschal II, whom he held prisoner for a time, to crown him emperor and to accept his terms for settling the Investiture Controversy. Circumstances soon forced him, however, to release the Pope and leave Italy. As soon as he had done so, Paschal proceeded to repudiate his agreement with his imperial opponent. From this time on, though Henry did invade Italy again, he was never able to exert much authority in the Italian portion of his empire, which became increasingly independent.

As for the Investiture Controversy itself, it dragged on until 1122, when a new pope, Calixtus I, negotiated a compromise settlement of the dispute with Henry called the Concordat of Worms. By this compromise the Emperor lost effective control over the appointment of churchmen in Italy and Burgundy, while still maintaining a good deal of power over their choice in Germany itself. In all cases churchmen were now to receive the spiritual symbols of their authority, the ring and the staff, directly from the pope. So ended this controversy, which had caused trouble between pope and emperor for almost 5 decades, with a settlement which represented in essence a victory for the papacy.

Though Henry was concerned during most of his reign with the struggle over investitures, he seems to have been particularly busy attempting to reassert his imperial authority in Germany itself. Here the problem he faced was that of a new nobility which was arising and which competed with him for authority. Perhaps the best examples of this new nobility are to be found in examining the rise of two powerful families, the Hofenstaufens in Swabia and the neighboring Rhinelands regions and the Welfs in Bavaria. Both made use of new feudal concepts and loyalties, previously largely unknown in Germany, as a basis for consolidating their authority over wide areas. To them, and others like them, the future of Germany was to belong.

Finally, once the Investiture Controversy had ended, Henry in his last days became interested in increasing his authority in the Low Countries along the borders of France. In 1114 he had married Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I of England and the future mother of the English king Henry II by another husband. In alliance with his English father-in-law, he attempted to increase his power in Flanders, but their actions led to friction with the French king Louis VI, who had an interest in the region as well. Finally, in 1124, he attempted an invasion of northern France itself. This provoked strong opposition and so rallied the northern French to their Capetian king that the imperial troops were forced to retreat without gaining any success. A year later, still childless, Henry V died. He left an Italy where imperial power had all but ceased to exist and a Germany ready for that long struggle between Welf and Hofenstaufen which was to disturb it for many decades.

Further Reading

Geoffrey Barraclough's Medieval Germany (2 vols., 1938) and his Origins of Modern Germany (1946; 2d rev. ed. 1966) cover this period well. See also James W. Thompson, Feudal Germany (1928), and Gerd Tellenbach, Church, State and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest (trans. 1940). □

Henry V

views updated May 21 2018

Henry V (1387–1422) King of England (1413–22). Son of Henry IV, he helped defeat Owain Glyn Dw̧r and the Percy. As King, Henry reopened the Hundred Years' War and won a decisive victory at Agincourt in 1415. Further conquests in 1417–19 resulted in the Treaty of Troyes (1420), in which Charles VI of France recognised him as his heir. He died on his third invasion of France. His military success and popular appeal made him a national hero.

Henry V

views updated May 18 2018

Henry V (1081–1125) German King (1105–25) and Holy Roman Emperor (1111–25). After deposing his father, Henry IV, he resumed the quarrel with the papacy over investiture, while antagonizing German princes by the ruthless assertion of his power. Henry was defeated in Germany and compelled to compromise with the papacy. The Concordat of Worms (1122) ended the investiture conflict.

Henry V

views updated May 18 2018

Henry V

Henry V, English king; b. Monmouth, Sept. 1387; d. Bois de Vincennes, Aug. 31, 1422. During his reign (1413–22), he established a flourishing musical service at the Chapel Royal. He was a musician himself, and probably the author of a Gloria and a Sanctus for 3 Voices in the Old Hall MS (transcribed into modern notation, and publ, by the Plainsong and Medieval Music Soc, Vols. I and III, 1933-38, where they are ascribed to Henry VI).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire